Before he even had an opportunity to digest his team's fifth game of the season, Ravens coach John Harbaugh was asked about the importance of getting home-field advantage in the playoffs.
Harbaugh's answer after the Ravens' 29-14 victory over the Houston Texans Sunday was predictable: "We have a long way to go before that comes up," he said.
The question was a bit premature, but after the Ravens finished arguably their toughest five-game stretch of the season with a 4-1 record, after they not only beat but dominated several of the AFC's better teams, it's getting easier and easier to look ahead, even though that's the last thing Harbaugh wants to do with a road game against the Jacksonville Jaguars looming Monday night.
"Our guys will be looking ahead to Monday night. That's what our guys will be looking ahead to," said Harbaugh, who didn't run Monday's practice because he attended Patricia Modell's funeral. "From what they told me, we had a heck of a practice today, a walk-through type of situation. That's our mindset. The toughest game we have on our schedule is Monday night against Jacksonville down there."
Among teams with at least four wins, the Ravens' 22.5 margin of victory ranks first in the NFL. They have beaten the Texans, Pittsburgh Steelers and New York Jets — three teams most labeled as Super Bowl contenders before the season began — by a 98-34 margin. Their defense is ranked first in the league in points allowed (14.2) and turnovers created (2.8 per game).
That they have matched their best five-game start in franchise history is made significantly more impressive when you consider who the victories were against, and the manner in which they won those games. Sunday was essentially their only game where the outcome was in doubt midway through the fourth quarter.
That, of course, bodes well for their next two games, when the Ravens face the Jaguars and Arizona Cardinals, who are a combined 2-9 and have lost nine straight games between them.
"When you go play on the road Monday night, look at the numbers. It's a definite tough thing to do," Harbaugh said about facing the 1-5 Jaguars. "It's going to be a huge challenge for us. They're coming off a great showing on the road against Pittsburgh. We know how physical that team can be, and how physical they want to be. That's all we'll be thinking about."
To look even further down the Ravens' schedule, they'll play five of their next eight games against teams currently sporting losing records with the exception being the rematch versus the Steelers (Nov.6), and games against the surprising Cincinnati Bengals (Nov.20) and San Francisco 49ers (Nov.24). The Pittsburgh game is the only one of those three that is on the road.
Meanwhile, the Jaguars are last in the league in pass offense, start a rookie quarterback and have been outscored 118-56 since edging the Tennessee Titans, the one team the Ravens lost to, in their season opener.
However, Jacksonville, at the very least, showed some fight Sunday when they fell behind the Steelers, 17-0, at Heinz Field before losing 17-13 when Blaine Gabbert couldn't connect on a Hail Mary pass on the final play of the game.
The Ravens also found themselves behind about midway through the third quarter against a game Texans team before they reeled off the final 16 points in yet another indication that the team has developed a closing mentality that will serve them not only well late in games against quality AFC teams, but against teams that it should put away early.
Overall, the Ravens have outscored their opponents 26-6 in the fourth quarter and 85-13 in the first and fourth quarters combined. Last season, the Ravens allowed 119 points in the fourth quarter.
"We're staying aggressive and we're not trying to hang on to win games," said quarterback Joe Flacco who threw for 305 yards and scored on a one-yard touchdown run Sunday.
"We're going after it. We're saying: 'This is how we're going to win football games.' We're going to continue go after — continue to attack — teams and really try to put points on the board to make it not a close game. I think, at times, we can rely on our defense a little bit and try to let them close out games. I think the main thing to do in this league is really put teams away when you can. That has to be done offensively. So, that's where our mindset is."
Wide receiver Anquan Boldin, who caught eight balls for 132 yards Sunday, said the way the Ravens finished is proof that their much-scrutinized offense is making progress.
"I think we are moving in the right direction," Boldin said. "When it came down to it, we were able to close the game out and that's what you have to do."
If there is one continuing concern offensively, it is the Ravens' red-zone offense. While they are fifth in the league in scoring with a 29.6 per game average, they are finding the end zone just 36.8 percent of the time they get inside their opposition's 20-yard line. That leaves them 29th in the NFL in red-zone efficiency.
"We can look at it and be better in the red zone than we were," Flacco said after the Texans' game. "If we scored a couple of touchdowns there rather than field goals, it might have been a little bit of a different game. But you're not going to score touchdowns every time you can get in the red zone."
The Ravens scored touchdowns on two of their four trips inside the Texans' 20, and relied heavily on the right leg of Billy Cundiff, who converted all five of his field goal attempts. However, when the Ravens needed a touchdown to put away Houston, Ricky Williams scored from four yards out with 4:01 remaining.
"That's a good team. They're going to win plenty of games," Harbaugh said. "There's a good chance that they'll win their [division]. They'll be in a fight with a couple of other good teams there. We've got a lot of respect for that football team. I thought they put up a heck of a fight, but I'm proud of our team. The way we handled ourselves in the fourth quarter, running the ball, playing defense, making some big completions, that was big for us to put a game away like that late in the fourth quarter and to be able to beat a good football team."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun