From the day the Ravens' schedule was released in April, it was taken as an article of faith, by pretty much everyone, that the team needed to stack wins early in the season because November and December brought a slate of rough games.
How is that assumption playing out?
Well, not quite as everyone expected, that's for sure.
The Ravens' 5-4 record is, I'm guessing, a little under what most analysts figured they would need at this point to have a shot at the playoffs. Six wins would have them in a nice position. Seven … sweet. Five? I'm guessing most analysts would have surmised in September that five was a little too close for comfort, possibly not good enough.
But as often is the case, the Ravens' season is looking a lot different in real time than it did when the schedule came out.
Their relatively modest record has them trailing a handful of teams in the wild-card race, turning that into a longshot possibility as a ticket to the playoffs. But 5-4 also has the Ravens atop the AFC North, in part because some chinks have appeared in the armor of their rivals. The Pittsburgh Steelers might not have a playoff-caliber defense. The Cincinnati Bengals aren't playing at the same level that earned the division title in 2015.
Everything could change, of course. A topsy-turvy league's regular season is just halfway over. Some teams are going to rise up and others are going to sink. The only guarantee is a lot of things will look different at the end of December than they do now.
But right now, it appears the Ravens have the division's stoutest defense, which gives them a leg up. As Defensive Coordinator Dean Pees' unit seemingly settles into a groove with rookies Tavon Young, Matt Judon and Michael Pierce playing key roles (raise your hand if you saw that coming … didn't think so), the defense gives the Ravens reason to believe they'll be competitive every week, even on the road.
But just as important to their prospects – and this almost qualifies as a "breaking news" nugget – is the fact that their November and December schedule isn't quite the murderer's row everyone anticipated.
Yes, it contains a couple of challenging road games against the league's top teams right now, the Dallas Cowboys and New England Patriots. Those will be tough to win.
But look at the standings. No other opponent on the Ravens' remaining schedule has a winning record. The Steelers, Philadelphia Eagles and Miami Dolphins are all 4-4. The Bengals are 3-4-1.
No, none of those are bottom feeders like the winless Cleveland Browns, whom the Ravens have beaten twice, or the Jacksonville Jaguars, another losing team the Ravens defeated (barely).
But with only two opponents over .500, it's certainly a schedule that affords the Ravens the right to think big.
Hey, in some respects, the schedule the Ravens have already navigated, including games against the 7-2 Oakland Raiders, 5-3 New York Giants, 4-4 Steelers and 4-5 Buffalo Bills, isn't a whole lot different than what lies ahead.
In a year when nine wins might capture the division, that's not an impossible number for the Ravens, especially if their offense perks up in the wake of its strong second half Thursday night. (I know, big if.)
The most crucial games, of course, are the two against the Bengals and a Christmas Day rematch with the Steelers, who will certainly be motivated, as their inability to beat the Ravens lately is starting to drive them nuts. But it's those games against the Bengals where the Ravens really need to deliver, or at least, not crater.
Having repeatedly fallen short against Cincinnati in recent years, the Ravens absolutely must win at least once to give themselves a fighting chance in the division race. Holding serve at home on Nov. 27 would push them in the right direction. Of all their remaining games, that one is circled on my calendar as the likeliest to tell an important story.
In the end, the Ravens have as much to play for as any team with their record could or should expect. They've endured a four-game losing streak that had Ravenstown tearing out its hair, but their division title is still available for the taking. And actually, it's very available. Go figure.