The Ravens have already played a lot of football in 2021. I looked it up just to be sure.
They've played nine regular-season games entailing 1,171 snaps, scored 231 points and allowed 217, generated 3,727 yards and allowed 3,344.
That's a lot of football.
As I've stated before, between all their injuries and comebacks and ups and downs, it feels to me as if they've been playing forever.
Yet their season really is just beginning.
Only now are they getting to the point where it gets determined whether 2021 is a year to remember or … not.
The stretch run begins Sunday with a game against the Chicago Bears that, suddenly, is a crucial contest the Ravens can't afford to lose. They're coming off an upset at the hands of the Miami Dolphins, and two straight losses to teams with losing records is no way to travel as the playoff race heats up.
After the Chicago game, things get really serious. Done with Monday nights, Thursday nights, short weeks, byes and mini-breaks, the Ravens will grind through seven straight Sunday games against teams that currently are .500 or better and hold serious playoff aspirations.
And weirdly, five of the seven games are against the Ravens' rivals from the AFC North.
The fact that they haven't played a down against the Pittsburgh Steelers or Cleveland Browns is the biggest reason their season effectively hasn't started yet. Those home-and-home series, along with a rematch with the Bengals, will go a long way toward determining how 2021 is remembered in Baltimore.
That it's all happening so late is a rare quirk, but here we are. Without many head-to-head results to ponder, there's so much we don't know about the division and the Ravens' place in it.
We DO know they're in first place with a 6-3 record, quite an achievement given the adversity they've faced in the form of injuries. After they blistered the Chargers in Week 6, I wrote that anything is possible for them, meant as a reference to their upside potential. I still believe they have a high ceiling in a year without a dominant team in the AFC.
Since they whipped the Chargers, however, the Ravens have suffered two of their worst defeats since Lamar Jackson became their quarterback, sandwiched around a win in which they trailed by two touchdowns in the third quarter.
Given that alarming stretch, it should be noted that the phrase "anything is possible" also carries a darker connotation, i.e., the Ravens could stumble down the stretch.
The other teams in the division are all in the same situation, facing a wide range of directions their seasons could go. The Steelers haven't lost since Week 4, but their recent performances haven't inspired faith. The Browns scare me with their strong running game and good defensive pieces, but they're just .500 after getting blown out Sunday. The Bengals are up and down, but the Ravens can lecture on their upside potential.
Good luck figuring out how all of this will play out.
For the Ravens to prosper, they'll need to consistently tackle better, generate more meaningful pressure on opposing quarterbacks, stop giving up so many big plays, run the ball better, give Jackson more time to do his thing, convert more on third down … it's a list.
And no matter how many times you wish for it, running backs J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards and defensive backs Marcus Peters and DeShon Elliott aren't coming back to help.
But the Ravens still have plenty going for them, starting with a quarterback who is among the NFL's most dynamic and determined playmakers. They also have a battled-tested collective persona that helps them endure many challenges.
The returns of tight end Nick Boyle, running back Latavius Murray, O-linemen Patrick Mekari and Ben Cleveland and D-lineman Brandon Williams should help.
To this point, the Ravens have done a nice job of giving themselves a cushion to work with; only one AFC team has fewer losses.
Now, as they enter the defining stretch of their season, their job is to take advantage of having that cushion.