Just two weeks ago, the Ravens came home from Green Bay with a .500 record, their playoff hopes seemingly flickering. But now, they're sitting atop the AFC wild card race.
Getting to the top was ridiculously easy. While the other contenders conveniently flopped, fell and scattered like bowling pins, the Ravens battered the dregs of the NFC North in a two-game homestand, beating the Lions and Bears by a combined 79-10 score.
The Ravens might not have performed up to everyone's expectations this season, but the Lions and Bears, oh, my, showed local fans what truly bad is. The Lions, at 2-12 for the season, are just excited they won a game this year, as opposed to last year. And the Bears, who actually thought they could be a winning team this year, committed six turnovers in a 31-7 defeat yesterday, falling to 5-9 for the season as quarterback Jay Cutler posted a 7.9 quarterback rating, the lowest in history by a Ravens opponent.
Back-to-back home games don't get much easier in the NFL, and these gimmes came at the perfect time, allowing the Ravens to catch their breath, find an offensive rhythm, steady their shaky confidence and get out of some of the bad habits that have continually set them back this season. Slow starts, penalties and red-zone turnovers weren't a problem against the Lions and Bears.
The Ravens went into the home stand just hoping to win a pair and get themselves back together after a run of six losses in nine games. Their unexpected rise to the top of the wild card race came about because elsewhere the right teams won almost every game, leaving so many teams with 7-7 records that you need more than one hand to count. Meanwhile, the Ravens (and Denver) are 8-6.
Staying on top of the wild card race is going to be a lot tougher than getting there was, though. Finishing their regular season schedule on the road against the Steelers and Raiders, the Ravens will be longing for home dates with guilty-pleasure opponents such as the Lions and Bears.
It's not that the Steelers and Raiders are so frightening. Neither has a winning record. The Raiders are 5-9, same as the Bears. The Steelers, a disappointment so far in 2009 after last season's Super Bowl triumph, joined the 7-7 club with a last-second win over Green Bay yesterday, breaking a five-game losing streak. Their defense has been more forgiving without injured safety Troy Polamalu.
But the Raiders have beaten the Broncos, Steelers, Bengals and Eagles this season, so they're capable of springing upsets. And the Steelers, well, they remain extremely dangerous. Ben Roethlisberger threw for 503 yards yesterday, setting a franchise record. He's at the top of his game. And while the Ravens' pass defense has played better lately, it will be without Lardarius Webb, the rookie cornerback who was playing so well before suffering a knee injury yesterday. Uh, oh.
The Ravens needed overtime to beat the Steelers earlier this season in a game in which third-stringer Dennis Dixon played. And that was in Baltimore. In Pittsburgh, against Big Ben, it will be critical that the Ravens avoid a recurrence of the slow-start bugaboo that has reared itself on the road against quality opponents. A few defensive stops early in the game would be hugely important.
The Pittsburgh game will test the legitimacy of the feel-good vibe that rose so sweetly, like a holiday soufflé, these past two weeks in Baltimore. No Raven got more out of the soft home stand than quarterback Joe Flacco, who had his worst game as a pro in Green Bay but rebounded with superb performances against the Lions and Bears, completing a combined 34 of 49 passes for 464 yards and five touchdowns, with no interceptions. That quelled the "sophomore slump" conversation. But picking apart the Steelers in the same manner, on the road, in December, will be much tougher.
The same is true for the entire team, really. Beating losing teams is an important step toward making the playoffs in the NFL, where you can't give anything away, and the Ravens have done that in 2009, going 5-0 against the Chiefs, Browns, Lions and Bears -- teams with a combined 13-43 record. But conversely, they're 3-6 against non-doormats, and at some point, you have to win those games, too. That time has arrived.
John Eisenberg 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.