Sunday afternoon, Ravens fans witnessed the single most impressive on-field performance by the boys in purple and pewter since Super Bowl XXXV. That is, assuming they turned off the TV at the end of the first quarter and flipped it back on with 8:47 left in the fourth. In that first quarter, Ray Rice, Joe Flacco, and company went up and down the field, meeting less resistance than the Marching Ravens at a home-game halftime show. Baltimore had a near-perfect game plan that salved the aching psyche of a Ravens Nation that was begging to give Little Ray the ball. Working off play action, Flacco looked like the second coming of legendary game manager Bob Griese, completing all six of his passes-he'd go on to complete his first 10-as he orchestrated masterful drives of 70 and 66 yards. The Ravens won the time-of-possession battle, 12:17 to 2:42, scored a touchdown on their first possession for the first time this season, and leapt out to a 14-0 lead. One quarter in and the beer temperature in Baltimore was hovering around absolute zero.
Then, the second quarter kicked off and apparently Cam Cameron swapped that first-quarter playbook for the dog-eared stage notes from a 1977 Loch Raven Middle School production of H.M.S. Pinafore. In two first-quarter possessions, the Ravens ran 15 times and passed six. In two second-quarter possessions, they flipped the script running only twice against six passing plays. Their second drive was a three-and-out, the first of six in a row, and Rice never touched the ball. It was poor clock management and gave the Browns the ball with a time out and 1:13 on the clock-just enough time to put up their second field goal of the quarter, making it 14-6 and bringing a sinking feeling to the collective heart of fair Baltimore. The beer at the half could cook an Esskay frank and the temperature was rising rapidly.
And that half is a pretty good microcosm of this, the halfway point of the season. The Ravens were where they wanted to be: up by eight against a scrappy but very bad Cleveland Browns team, but it felt like they were going to blow it. And right now, eight games in to a 16-game season, the Ravens have a stellar 6-2 record, and are a game up on the hated Steelers. There should be dancing in the streets from Pigtown to Pasadena, but instead, old ladies are praying purple rosaries and the switchboards at 105.7 will be clogged with fans calling for the heads of Cam Cameron and Joe Flacco on a platter.
After those six straight three-and-outs and falling behind 15-14 in the fourth quarter, the Ravens finally woke up. Cameron got his groove back; Flacco hit Bouldin for 21 yards; Little Ray ripped back-to-back 10-yard runs, each for a first down; and Torrey Smith showed his Barry Allen-ish speed when he grabbed a little 5 yard under route, turned on the jets, and beat the world to the pylon for a 19-yard score with 4:30 to go in the game. Flacco followed it up with a nifty two-point conversion to Anquan Bouldin, and the Ravens would never give up that lead. The Ravens improved to 5-0 under Harbaugh after the bye, and Flacco ran his record against the Browns to 10-0.
Again, sounds good, but Baltimore needed several stupid Browns penalties, a pair of very ugly interceptions thrown by 28-year-old Cleveland rookie QB Brandon Weeden, and Browns coach Pat Shurmur's startlingly stupid decision to go for it on fourth-and-two from their own 28 with 3:53 to play. That gaffe gave the Ravens a deal-sealing field goal. Sure, a win's a win-and tautologies go a long way in the NFL-but coming off of one game in which they got beaten so badly by the Texans that even Chris Brown thought they'd had enough, this win looks as shaky as a game of Jenga played on a paint-shaker between Michael J. Fox and a three-days-sober Lindsay Lohan. Meanwhile, the hard-charging Steelers went into New York, came back from 10-down in the fourth quarter, and won an absolute thriller over the World Champion Giants. Pittsburgh is starting to seem both lucky and good, a combination that makes them look like the class of the AFC North, and we'll know the truth soon enough, as the Ravens and Steelers play each other twice over the next four weeks.
Now I'm not saying the sky is falling. John Harbaugh deserves a ton of credit for keeping this squad rolling despite a massive shift in defensive personnel and philosophy, the loss of Ben Grubbs in free agency-which has been a major blow to the offensive line-reigning defensive player of the year Terrell Suggs missing the first six games, season-ending injuries to Ray Lewis and Lardarius Webb, and All-Pros Haloti Ngata and Ed Reed playing through significant injuries. The Ravens are 6-2 and, barring the return of Quetzalcoatl, will make the playoffs for the fifth time in the five-year Harbaugh/Flacco era, a tremendous accomplishment.
The question is: How far will they go? The Ravens' defensive front seven looks as impenetrable as the Maginot line, and even with Suggs, they'll have a tough time generating a pass rush. Jimmy Smith, who's playing for Webb, will become a quality cornerback but isn't there yet, and with four games against two Mannings and a Roethlisberger on the schedule, expect him to get burned early and often. The offense has shown it can shine when it runs through Rice and sets up the play-action game, but when things go well, like they did in the first quarter, Cameron forgets the running game and thinks he's coaching the '84 Dolphins; and when they fall behind, he gets scared and goes straight to the air. If he can call a whole game like this week's first quarter, the Ravens can go far. As it is, I think they're a good team-not a very good one-and come January, they'll be the Wild Card, looking up at Pittsburgh. Here's hoping I'm wrong.