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In my opinion, there isn't a best team in the NFL right now. There is an upper echelon, but not one is consistently formidable enough to rank above the rest. They all seem to experience very bad weeks now and then. They all have issues.
The Ravens are in that upper echelon. And not at the bottom of it, either.
I feel compelled to offer this context because of the surprisingly heavy fusillade of criticism that was lobbed at the Ravens after their loss in Atlanta. More than a few fans were really upset. On this web site and others, as well as on the radio, it wasn't unusual to read or hear that both coordinators needed to go, quarterbackJoe Flacco couldn't compare to Atlanta's Matt Ryan and, well, the sky was falling.
Funny, but I thought the Ravens were guilty mostly of taking on a challenging, playoff-caliber opponent in front of a loud, hostile sellout crowd and predictably taking their lumps . . . but then staging one of their best rallies in several years, showing impressive fight, only to lose in a heartbreaker at the end.
I came away thinking not that the sky was falling, but that things might turn out differently if the teams played in Baltimore or on a neutral field.
Maybe I made the mistake of actually being at the game instead of watching it on TV.
Don't misunderstand, I see the Ravens' warts as clearly as anyone. The secondary hangs on for dear life against good quarterbacks (and even some not so good). The pass rush needs to be more intrusive. The offense sputters at times, especially on the road. There are periods when Ray Rice doesn't touch the ball enough. And Ryan did look more polished than Flacco . . .until Flacco got up off the mat and led three touchdown drives to practically win the game.
The point is that while yes, the Ravens have issues, every team has issues. The Saints and Patriots both lost to the 3-7 Browns and a rookie quarterback. The Jets are just scraping by, needing overtime every week. The Falcons' pass defense is one of the league's worst.
This NFL season reminds me of a competitive 100-meter dash. A bunch of runners have surged to the front, ahead of the pack. They're about even. But they aren't going to remain even. Half of the race remains. A few runners are going to emerge as the fastest by the end.
"If we get better this week to the next week to the week after, we'll be a force to contend with in this race. That's our job," Ravens Head Coach John Harbaugh said Monday.
It is hardly assured that the Ravens will be among the fastest by the end. They have to keep grinding away, trying to get better, finding ways to win, avoiding meltdowns. There could come a time when it's appropriate for people to panic. But with the Ravens near the front of the race, that time has not yet come.
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.*