Another emotional victory, another week of questions for the Ravens.
For a team on the short list of contenders setting up to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl in February, the Ravens have demonstrated a puzzling struggle with inconsistency.
How else to explain three losses this season to -- at the time -- sub-.500 opponents after significant, potentially season-defining wins? For now, those setbacks haven't severely damaged the team's postseason hopes, but there's no doubting the sentiment in the locker room and the meeting rooms to end that trend this Sunday against the 4-7 Cleveland Browns.
"We've got to show up and play," outside linebacker Jarret Johnson said. "We can't afford to have a letdown because we've only got a [tiebreaker] lead on the [Pittsburgh] Steelers [in the AFC North]. I don't know what the lead is on Cincinnati, but it isn't much."
Indeed, with the same 8-3 record as the Houston Texans, New England Patriots and the Steelers, the Ravens have plenty of motivation to leave Cleveland with a victory and keep themselves at the forefront of the playoff discussions.
A loss Sunday, and the team could find itself in the rearview mirror.
"We've got to turn over every stone," coach John Harbaugh said. "We certainly acknowledge that those three losses, coming off of big wins, against teams with sub-.500 records, were not good performances. They are team losses, the way we look at it -- coaches, players, all of us. They are there, they are on the record. Now, we face a similar challenge this week, but a tougher challenge because now we have to go play a team in our division, a team that you saw play the Bengals last week and control the game for most of the game."
The Oct. 24 loss to a Jacksonville Jaguars team that was 1-5 and a defeat against a 2-6 Seattle Seahawks squad less than three weeks later featured a common thread in an ineffective offense that forgot to properly use running back Ray Rice and misfired in other areas.
But the setback to an 0-1 Tennessee Titans team on Sept. 18 was highlighted by quarterback Matt Hasselbeck's ability to pass quickly and thwart the defense's blitzes.
The outcomes have led many media observers to suggest that the Ravens prepare and play better against high-caliber competition such as Pittsburgh -- which they faced one week before Tennessee and one week before Seattle, and Houston, which they played eight days before Jacksonville -- but lag when the level of competition isn't quite as fierce.
Like many of his teammates, Rice dismissed that notion.
"No, I don't think [we're] playing to the level of the competition," he said. "Every NFL team is good. Anybody can win on any given Sunday. The one thing I can say is if you look at the three losses that we've had, if you look at the level of execution that we've had, it was poor. If you look at the situation -- whether it was fumbles, whether it was field position, whether it was getting drives started -- we played poor football. Sometimes you've just got to give another team credit. When another team comes out ready to play and you're not ready to play, you fall behind, and then you find yourself playing out of your normal game plan. Going forward, we know we can't do that. We've got to come out ready to play. Every game from here on out is essentially a playoff game. We're fighting for something."
Quarterback Joe Flacco did his best to put a lid on the matter by pointing out that for all of the team's stumbling, it is still among the AFC's best.
"People want to say we've had an up-and-down season. We're 8-3," he said. "There's nobody better than us in the AFC right now. So to say we've had an up-and-down season is a little I don't think it's correct. It's just we haven't played well against some teams that people expect us to beat. Sometimes that happens. Like I've said, we're a young football team. We've worked on being more consistent, and I've said all along, we're going to get better and better and the year goes on, and that's what we're working towards."
But outside linebacker Terrell Suggs said the Ravens won't convince anyone of their credentials until they put away the teams they are supposed to beat.
"Obviously, everybody's making it a point, and we can't seem to get away from it," he said. "Rightfully so, we've earned that. We've gone on the road against a team that -- quote-unquote -- wasn't good in y'all eyes, and we dropped it. So like I said, we've definitely earned that reputation. And until we show y'all different, that's going to be the story."
With just one opponent with a winning record in the remaining five games of the season, the Ravens have a golden opportunity to earn their first home playoff game and a first-round bye under Harbaugh.
But getting to that stage begins Sunday, according to defensive end Cory Redding.
"Don't know what it is, but it is what it is," he said. "That's our record, and we've got to clean it up. That's everybody taking responsibility to point to themselves and say, 'I've got to do a better job and make plays and find a way for us to win.' So we've got to go out to Cleveland and bring back a 'W.'"