BALTIMORE – One game does not define a team, but the next four will.
It’s crunch time in the NFL, the final month of the regular season, when serious contenders start to pull away and pretenders bow out.
The Ravens (9-3) have one of the best records in the NFL, but few take them seriously. They seem to have the right characteristics, but not the consistency.
With the Washington Redskins, Denver Broncos, New York Giants and Cincinnati Bengals left on the schedule, the Ravens can silence their critics and go into the postseason pounding on their chests.
Or they might have to crawl in – or not get in at all.
“We’ve got to show up and play now,” Ravens strong safety Bernard Pollard said. “We’ve let some things slip away, but as a team we’ve got to stack some good practices and some great weeks. Then we have to show it on the field so we can keep playing on Sundays”
The NFL season is built around December. That’s when teams put together winning streaks and gain momentum heading into the playoffs. A year ago, the Giants were 6-6 heading into their last four games, but they won three of them and eventually beat the New England Patriots, 21-17, in the Super Bowl.
The Ravens had been hot, winning four straight games before losing to the Pittsburgh Steelers, 23-20, on Sunday.
The Steelers were without star quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, which helped create some of the current panic around town. The often repeated question is not what seed the Ravens will get, but whether they can win another game.
If this team had proved to be of championship caliber, that would not be a topic of discussion.
“There is always a little bit of extra urgency after a loss, for whatever reason,” Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco said. “I don’t know if it’s a bad thing or a good thing. But we are calm. We are always calm, cool and collected and confident around here. It’s just because of the types of player we have and the types of coaches we have. We understand that we have to move on and get ready this week.”
It’s understandable why there is doubt about the Ravens. Four of their wins have been by three points or fewer. Flacco is struggling and the Ravens will be without two star defensive players Sunday because of injuries – cornerback Lardarius Webb and linebacker Ray Lewis – and perhaps a third, linebacker Terrell Suggs, who is listed as questionable.
Besides, the Ravens have the 19th-ranked offense in the NFL and are No. 25 in total defense. Would you feel overly confident about this team right now?
“The bottom line is everything we do is to gear the program toward December,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “We feel like we are built for December football. We are excited about the fact that we are in that phase of the season right now, and we are excited about the fact we are in the position to do something in December. So, we are looking forward to that opportunity, and we are going to do our job to make the most of it.”
After this stretch of games, the Ravens will definitely know more about their team. All four opponents are looking for playoff berths.
The Ravens get to face four good quarterbacks, including Washington’s Robert Griffin III, who should be the Rookie of the Year, as well as the Manning brothers, Peyton with the Broncos and Eli with the Giants.
By the end of the regular season, the Ravens will have played every top team in the AFC.
“We are on course and that’s the thing,” Harbaugh said. “It’s a tough league. You have wins and you have losses. You win tight games and you lose tight games when you’re a good team. One loss does not define any football team. It certainly does not define us.”
Usually in December, teams build on a strength. But it has been hard to define what the Ravens do well. Running back Ray Rice could be a strength, but the Ravens don’t always use him.
In the past, run defense has always been a strength, but the Ravens are allowing 125.8 yards per game, one of the worst totals in the league. Regardless, the Ravens still have one of the best records in the NFL and a two-game lead over Pittsburgh and Cincinnati.
Yet this team hasn’t defined itself as a serious contender. And if the Ravens lose to the rival Redskins today, this team could unravel.