3:27 PM EST, November 8, 2012
After the Ravens play the Oakland Raiders Sunday, the real fun begins. That's when the Ravens will show if they are a quality team or a fraudulent one
There won't be as many cream puffs remaining on the schedule.
Gone are the Cleveland Browns, Kansas City Chiefs, Dallas Cowboys and Philadelphia Eagles. Next up are the Pittsburgh Steelers twice, San Diego Chargers, Denver Broncos and New York Giants.
"Yes, everything is still ahead of us," Ravens running back Ray Rice said. "But there's no surprise that the toughest part of our schedule is ahead of us. We know that. So we're looking forward to November and early December. We know the kinds of games we have coming up, and it feels good to know that we took care of the first half of the season.
"We dropped two," he continued. "We lost to a great Houston Texans team and we let one go against Philadelphia. But we've gotten better from those games. We haven't had it easy."
It's debatable if the Ravens have improved. They might be 6-2, but few are declaring the Ravens an AFC power, especially after losing to the Texans, 43-13. They are ranked No. 19 in the league in total offense, and have yet to determine if they are a running or passing team.
The Ravens are ranked No. 26 in total defense including No. 28 against the run, which is embarrassing to a franchise that prides itself in being physical and shutting down the league's top runners.
Regardless of these shortcomings, the Ravens have found ways to win games. On occasions, teams like Kansas City and Cleveland have virtually given the Ravens victories, as well.
In public, Ravens coach John Harbaugh has defended his team. After beating Cleveland, 25-15, last week for the second time this season, Harbaugh pointed out that the NFL was a tough league and he gave no credence to "winning ugly."
He said there were no homecoming games in the NFL.
Well, maybe we got the term wrong. Instead of cream puffs or lightweights, we'll call them "must-win" games.
In the first half, the Ravens played two teams that now have winning records, the Patriots and Texans.
After playing Oakland Sunday, there are three teams on the schedule with winning records — the Steelers (twice), Broncos and Giants. Plus, the Chargers are 4-4.
"I'm not making excuses, but when you look at our schedule this season — and I'm sure you all did the same — you probably said the Ravens have one of the toughest schedules in the NFL, which is very true week in and week out," Rice said. "We embrace the challenge.
"We're really embracing it, and right now, to be sitting there at 6-2 with that kind of schedule that we had and with all of the commotion going on earlier in the year with replacement refs, it feels pretty good."
The caliber of quarterbacks the Ravens will face in the second half of the season also improves. The only elite quarterback the Ravens faced in the first eight games was Tom Brady, and two good ones were Tony Romo and Matt Schaub.
Now, they get Ben Roethlisberger twice, Peyton Manning, younger brother Eli Manning, Philip Rivers and even Carson Palmer on Sunday throwing against a defense which is allowing 246.8 passing yards a game.
These are tough assignments.
It's even tougher without linebacker Ray Lewis and cornerback Lardarius Webb, out for the season with injuries. And the NFL didn't do the Ravens any favors by sandwiching the Chargers and a trip to the West Coast between two games against the Steelers.
There is some consolation: at least one of the Pittsburgh games and games against Denver and Giants are at home.
If the Ravens beat Oakland Sunday, they'll probably need to win at least three more games to make the playoffs. Two of their second-half games are against Washington and Cincinnati, both "must-wins," but both on the road.
But let's not get too far ahead of ourselves here.
Despite the record, the Ravens have a lot of issues. The offensive line can't handle speed rushers and their receivers can't get off press coverage.
On defense, they can't stop the run, their cornerbacks have struggled and they haven't gotten consistent pressure on the quarterback.
Yet, the Ravens have lost just two games. There are eight remaining which means there is a lot of time to improve. If they can, they could be a serious contender in the post season.
If not, they won't go far. We'll find out soon. The real season is about to begin.
Copyright © 2013, The Baltimore Sun