If you’re having trouble buying into the Ravens and their precarious position atop the AFC North, your skepticism has been well-earned, but history suggests that it would be foolhardy to discount the chances of a contending John Harbaugh team in December.
The Ravens have spent the past season and a half trying desperately to get healthy and that finally appears to be happening. The return of Elvis Dumervil last week was a key element in their suspenseful victory over the Bengals. The expected return of top cornerback Jimmy Smith this week would be another big step closer to the postseason.
There’s still enough offensive inconsistency to keep everyone guessing, but Joe Flacco has taken better care of the ball of late and has shown signs of his old self on the way to three victories in the last four games.
“I think everybody is starting to come together,’’ Flacco said on Wednesday. “We’re starting to get guys healthy and we’re starting to have a more consistent lineup. We’re starting games better, I think. We’re not necessarily finishing them out with our foot on the gas, but we’re playing good football. We just need to get more consistent.”
It’s going to be a hard road, considering that the Steelers have a much softer schedule the rest of the way, but the Ravens have a knack for pulling things together during the final weeks of the regular season. Harbaugh has only had a losing record from December on twice in his eight previous seasons as head coach.
Oddly enough, one of those two losing Decembers came in 2012, when the Ravens lost three straight games before the offense woke up in a 33-point performance against the New York Giants that propelled them into the playoffs and to their second Super Bowl title. The case could be made that they looked just as flawed then as they have this year.
Every season is different, and this one has been difficult on a number of levels, but there is still a very clear path to the playoffs if the Ravens can win the games they should win down the stretch. The Dolphins are no pushover, but the Ravens’ stiff run defense should be able neutralize the Miami offense long enough for Flacco to put up some points.
Things get a lot tougher after that, but the biggest challenges will take place in locations — New England and Pittsburgh — where the Ravens have scored some of their most storied late-season victories. And the way things have developed in the AFC, they really don’t have to take a dramatic leap forward to be competitive against anyone. They just need to keep getting healthier and get better every week.
“That’s kind of where we’re at right now,’’ Harbaugh said. “We’re improving as a football team. We’re starting to play good, complimentary football with each phase playing to the strengths of the other phase — field position, offense and defense playing to each other. But we want to keep building on that.
They don’t have to beat the Patriots or Steelers to get the playoffs, but they do have to win both of their remaining home games and beat the reeling Bengals on the road to get to the nine victories that would make a playoff berth realistic.
Though it’s fair to doubt their ability to play consistently enough to do that, you don’t have to look hard to find teams that got hot at just the right time and made a big run in the postseason. The Ravens have done it before, but we’ll have to wait and see if there’s enough upside left to do it this year.
“At this point in time, you’re more of a finished product than what you were early on,’’ Harbaugh said. “You learn a lot about yourself in September and October and you try and 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.”
Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here," at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog and follow him @Schmuckstop on Twitter.