Eisenberg: Improvement Needed For Playoff Run

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If they replayed the game today, though, it probably would unfold differently. The Patriots have improved immeasurably since that day, bolstering their young defense and sharpening Brady's offense to such a fine point that it is now shattering playoff-caliber opponents. But the Ravens haven't improved much, if at all. Their loss in New England gave them a 4-2 record in their first six games. They've gone 5-2 since, puttering along at pretty much the same pace.

It's not a bad pace. The Ravens are in control of the AFC wild card race, in great shape to advance to the playoffs for a third straight season.

But a lot was expected of them this season, and unless they improve in their final three regular season games, they're looking at having to traverse an arduous January road, away from home, while playing at a level that won't get them through.

At this point, the Ravens are that strangest of creatures, a mysterious winning team. They're good enough to make the playoffs, but why can't they run the ball? Why can't they put away opponents when they're ahead? Why are they prone to long stretches where nothing happens offensively?

As Monday night's game in Houston began, it was clear they intended to re-start their stalled running game, averaging just 3.6 yards per carry, next-to-worst in the league. They changed personnel, went jumbo at times, and Offensive Coordinator Cam Cameron gave it every shot, sticking with it even against Houston's historically bad pass defense.

But all that focus and attention didn't improve it. The Ravens went backwards, averaging just 2.6 yards per carry.

It's hard to figure why the running game has fallen off from a year ago. The same backs are carrying the ball, and the same guys are blocking for the most part, except for injured Jared Gaither, and he isn't that good. The Ravens are passing more this year, but that should open things up for the run, not close it down.

In any case, the Ravens have three weeks to figure it out. Unless they have a decent run-pass balance going by the end of the regular season, they're going to have a hard time in the playoffs.

Their defense is similarly vexing – brilliant against Pittsburgh one week, filleted like a fish against Houston the next week. Yes, it shut out the Texans for the game's first 29 minutes, but multiple drops by Houston receivers had as much to do with that as anything. And once the Texans got going, they drove the ball relentlessly. The Ravens let another lead slip away.

They were happy to win in the end, but Terrell Suggs, for one, wasn't fooled. "A win is a win, but the story all season is 'put teams away.' If you want to win championships, you got to put teams away," he said.

If the Ravens had beaten the Texans by 20, we wouldn't be discussing this. But the fact is, the problems that hampered them early in the season are still hampering them now.

"One thing you should take from every game is you just need to get better," cornerback Chris Carr said last week. "If you play well, you can't sit there and gloat about how well you played and then the next week you go out there and you don't play well. If you play bad, you can't sit there and sulk and talk about how bad you are. You just need to get better, because that saying, 'if you don't get better, you get worse,' it's true, because teams going into this playoff run, teams are getting better towards the end of the season, and if you're not getting better, it's going to be hard to stop these teams."

If you don't get better, you get worse.

In the wake of the Ravens' crazy win in Houston, those are not comforting words.

John Eisenberg *covers the Ravens for Comcast SportsNet Baltimore. He worked in the newspaper business for 28 years as a sports columnist, with much of that time coming at the Baltimore Sun. While working for the Sun, Eisenberg spent time covering the Ravens, among other teams and events, including the Super Bowl, Final Four, World Series and Olympics. Eisenberg is also the author of seven sports-themed books.*

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