Five games into the 2012 season, the Ravens are a bit of a puzzle.
They've won four of five games to grab the lead in the AFC North. If not for a one-point road loss in Philadelphia on Sept. 16, they would be undefeated. Only Houston has a better record in the AFC.
Most teams would love those circumstances, and the Ravens aren't about to trade. But while they're winning, they aren't playing very well. In their last two games, they've struggled to eke out wins against the Cleveland Browns and Kansas City Chiefs, who are a combined 1-9.
"We're going to have to play better to beat the Dallas Cowboys in our next game," fullback Vonta Leach said after Sunday's hard-to-watch 9-6 win in Kansas City.
The conflict between the Ravens' winning record and so-so performances raises a crucial question: Should fans be encouraged or worried?
If the posters on this site and others are any measure, there's a predictable disparity of thought. Some fans think the sky is falling because the defense is getting dented and the offense is streaky. Other fans take solace in the favorable bottom line, quoting the Bill Parcells line, "You are what your record says you are."
I understand both opinions. The Ravens do indeed have issues on both sides of the ball, as Head Coach John Harbaugh himself affirmed Monday. But they're also a savvy veteran team with a palpable winning knack, a quality that can offset a lot of problems. Other teams would kill for the Ravens' ability to seal deals.
But if you forced me to take a side, I would say the fans concerned about the issues are more on-point than those simply satisfied by the winning record. Yes, the Ravens are 4-1. But a tough road lies ahead, including three-fourths of the road schedule, the home-and-away series with the Pittsburgh Steelers, a trip to San Diego and a December test against the reigning Super Bowl champions. The Ravens are going to need to raise their game to get through all that without taking some lumps.
The issues with the defense are especially thorny because it has long been the franchise's signature unit. But gone are the days when Baltimore dominates. The Ravens have rung up just nine sacks in five games. Only eight teams are allowing more yards per game.
The New England Patriots and Philadelphia Eagles combined for more than 800 offensive yards against the Ravens. A rookie quarterback on a winless Cleveland team gave the defense trouble, especially late in the game. The Chiefs shredded the Ravens' rushing defense.
It's not so surprising given Terrell Suggs' injury and the departures of mainstays Jarret Johnson and Cory Redding via free agency. That's a lot of meaningful subtraction.
And although the Ravens have yielded, they still rank in the top 10 in scoring defense, a testament to their play-making abilities.
But when you're 20th in the league against the run and 22nd against the pass, as the Ravens are this week, you're going to find yourself just hanging on and hoping, especially on the road. That's a tough way to prosper.
The offense, meanwhile, is dealing with the same inconsistency that plagued it for much of last season. It's hard to fathom how a unit that soared so high against Cincinnati and New England could come crashing down in Kansas City.
But there's a lot more to be encouraged about on that side of the ball, starting with a top-10 ranking in both points and yardage. Ray Rice has never looked more dangerous. Joe Flacco is piling up winning numbers in most games. The young starters on the line figure to get better as the year unfolds.
What really matters, of course, is not where the Ravens are now, but how they end up – how they're playing late in the season, when the playoffs loom. The task is to improve, sharpen, become almost a different team in some respects by December … less of a puzzle.
They have plenty of time, but they can't afford to stumble much while they do it, as the competition for playoff spots is rough. But no one said this was easy.