Eisenberg: With A Few Changes, Ravens Can Be Pretty Darn Good Next Year

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For the record, I couldn't disagree more with the supposition that the Ravens might as well have missed the playoffs because they weren't good enough to make a run.

Oh, yeah?

That's an obvious take to offer about an 8-7 team, but when you really study the possibilities, things get interesting.

Now that the Pittsburgh Steelers are headed to the AFC playoffs as the likely No. 3 seed, they'll probably play at home against Miami in the wild-card round. That's a win, I think. They would then play a divisional-round game against Oakland, which no longer has starting quarterback Derek Carr, who broke his leg last weekend.

That would have been the Ravens' playoff path if they had won Sunday and gone on to claim the AFC North title – Miami at home, Oakland on the road. You say that's a dead end? I don't think so. The Ravens obliterated Miami at M&T Bank Stadium a few weeks ago. Oakland without Carr is vulnerable.

No, the team that came within one outstretched arm of winning in Pittsburgh Sunday could have had an interesting January. That's what makes the loss so frustrating. When quarterback Joe Flacco remarked, "It was all there for us," he was talking about the game. But the comment reflected a larger scenario, too.

Of course, it's all just speculation now. The Ravens didn't win and they'll sit out the playoffs for the third time in four years, a disappointing development for an organization with a winning track record. No doubt, they're accustomed to better.

Inevitably, there's going to be talk about what needs to be done to reverse that recent history, with some fans favoring major changes. Well, those aren't going to happen, and I don't think they should.

Regardless of what happens in the season finale Sunday in Cincinnati, the Ravens are headed in the right direction.

Since they won the Super Bowl 46 months ago, they've been re-engineering their roster virtually nonstop while continuing to try to win. It's a process with challenges, and there was a palpable low when they went 5-11 in 2015. They simply weren't very good.

But they've been much more competitive this year and already have three more wins to avoid a second straight losing season. They would finish 9-7 by winning Sunday. It wasn't enough for a playoff spot, but it signals quantifiable improvement.

The best course for the Ravens going forward is to take the foundation this year's team provided and make the changes and tweaks that clearly are needed. There's a list. For instance, they need to get younger. (Another draft as productive as this year's would help.) Flacco has passed for more than 4,000 yards for the first time this year, but there's room for him to raise his game.

In any case, with a few improvements, there's a chance the Ravens could be pretty darn good in 2017.

Some fans will call that a cop out, a case of setting the bar too low, intimating that the 2016 Ravens were better than their record and should have made the playoffs.

I'll respond to that with a question: Did you watch the games? Yes, they played hard and made some good things happen, but the earmarks of a team that isn't fully baked yet often were evident. Blown leads. Key penalties. Offensive blackouts.

Everyone will point to the Oct. 22 loss to the woeful New York Jets as the reason they'll miss the playoffs, but the Ravens are 6-1 against teams with losing records this season. For the most part, they've done a nice job of winning when they should.

They're sitting out the playoffs because they went 2-6 against opponents with winning records, beating only Miami and Pittsburgh at home. I think that's the most telling stat of all. They're a better team this year, but not quite ready to topple the big boys, as evidenced by the tenor of their losses to Dallas and New England.

I don't think this was a team that underachieved in 2016. The Ravens were coming off a poor season and improved, and they had a shot at the playoffs because no one ran away from them. But they still need to take strides to get closer to where they want to be. From this point forward, it's all about making those strides.

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