Things are mighty different than what they seemed early on for the Ravens.
Rewind to the offseason and preseason, and the talk of the town was that this was the year the offense would finally click.
Players were returning healthy, Joe Flacco didn’t have to endure a new offensive coordinator or a new system, and playmakers were added. In fact, most of the Ravens faithful were much more worried about how the defense would perform following a year riddled with injury and plagued by a gruesome secondary.
My, how things have changed in just a few short months.
The offense sputtered early, costing offensive coordinator Marc Trestman his job. Since, new coordinator Marty Mornhinweg’s offense hasn’t fared much better. The run game is still lacking, Flacco has been sub par, and the offensive line, while better as of late, has struggled to stay healthy.
Yet through it all, thanks to the stellar play of the defense and the leg of Justin Tucker, the Ravens sit atop the AFC North with a 6-5 record.
While the first few months of football is more of a scouting process as teams try to figure out what works and what doesn’t, December football is a different kind of beast.
“You should be, at this point in time, more of a finished product than what you were early on,” said John Harbaugh following practice on Wednesday. “You learn a lot about yourself in September and October, and you try to win some games as you do it. By now, we understand our strengths and weaknesses, and we continue to improve, but it’s about finding a way to win football games.
“It’s football in the sense of you don’t make mistakes, you create mistakes, you play field position, your guys make plays to win football games in critical situations, and you win games in the fourth quarter. I think defense and special teams are big. Run game is important. Completing passes is important. Then making plays in the pass game. You have to open people up. You have to get strikes, and you have to put yards up in the passing game.
“All of those things, I think, are part of it. But in the end, I think the best way to describe it more so than ever is it’s about playing winning football.”
Playing “winning football” is of, course, important during the early part of the schedule as well, but when the calendar flips to December, good teams turn it up a notch. They know even just one loss could mean the difference between playing and watching from the sofa in January.
This means putting teams away when they have them on the ropes and not playing overly conservative – something the offense fell victim to against the Bengals last Sunday.
“A little bit of everything,” Joe Flacco told reporters when asked to clarify his comments following the close win over Cincy. “I talked to [offensive coordinator] Marty [Mornhinweg] about it, and we had a little funny conversation.
“We did what we had to do to win the game, and I just didn’t want … I’m used to … We are used to around here winning games at the end in close games. But when you have a team 16-3, you would like to choke them out and get it over with. I think I was just a little disappointed in the moment that we had to withstand a last-minute drive to where they could have tied the game up or went ahead.
“The type of game it was early on, I felt like we had the opportunity to put them away a little earlier than we did, and that is probably where I was coming from.”
Hopefully the conversation between Joe and Marty served as a wake up call to the both of them. The remaining schedule and their neck-and-neck race with the Steelers doesn’t allow them to keep leaving the door open for opponents. The defense has been taxed enough.
Are the Ravens, particularly the offense, just inches or miles away from it all coming together down the crucial stretch that remains?
Only time will tell. Their postseason effectively starts on Sunday, and will continue every week until the final whistle blows in Cincinnati on January 1. If they can start finishing teams off, it could very well continue well into the new year.
If not? Well, the draftniks are starting to put together their mocks, at least.
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