As the Ravens spent their week preparing for another vital showdown against the arch-rival Pittsburgh Steelers, the words and images from Owings Mills could have come from any recent season.
There was linebacker Terrell Suggs, showing off his tattooed arms in defiance of the 40-degree chill as he mused over the infinite "alley fight" between Ravens and Steelers. There was running back Ray Rice, speaking through his gentle grin of how it's time to don "big boy pants" for the tough games ahead.
With a 7-2 record in an AFC devoid of quality depth, the Ravens are in excellent position to claim a fifth consecutive playoff berth and to compete for home-field advantage in the second round. It could all seem rather ho-hum for a team and fan base accustomed to perennial playoff runs.
But the record masks an array of problems that have left some analysts and fans wondering if the Ravens are as serious a Super Bowl contender as in 2011, when they went to the conference championship game.
"Are they a top-10 team in the league?" said Aaron Schatz, founder of the statistically-minded web site Football Outsiders. "I and a lot of other people would probably say yes. Are they Top five? I don't think so."
The team's defense, long its bedrock, has struggled to stuff the run, to pressure opposing passers and to cover top receivers. With injuries depriving the Ravens of key players such as Lardarius Webb and Ray Lewis and hobbling others such as Haloti Ngata, it's not clear if a resurgence is possible.
Inconsistency has plagued the offense, which cuts through opponents for strings of touchdowns in some halves and struggles to make a first down in others.
Grueling stretch of games
With Sunday night's nationally televised game at Pittsburgh, the Ravens will leave behind a relatively easy schedule and enter a six-week stretch that includes two games against the Steelers, a cross-country trip to San Diego and home games against the defending champion New York Giants and the surging Denver Broncos.
Though the gauntlet might be eased by a shoulder injury to Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, it will likely determine the course of the Ravens' 2012 season. Will they scrape into the playoffs as a wild card and face a daunting path of road games? Or will they shore up their defense and start the postseason at home, where they have remained nearly invulnerable?
Quarterback Joe Flacco said the team always tries to keep a one-game focus, "but there is probably a little sense that the next few weeks are going to kind of determine a good amount of how the season goes."
Flacco and fellow team leaders say they like the Ravens' position, and they're not alone.
NBC analyst Cris Collinsworth, who will call the Sunday night game in Pittsburgh, praised the Ravens for remaining a contender despite key injuries.
"Welcome to the NFL," he said when asked about the team's inconsistency. "I think what's been pretty impressive is that they're winning while in transition. There's no doubt they're a team in transition, having to come up with new looks without some star players in there. But they're doing pretty well."
Collinsworth said the Ravens' offense, despite its struggles against seemingly overmatched opponents such as the Kansas City Chiefs, strikes him as a more diverse and potent unit than in 2011.
"Could they go out and beat a lot of teams just by handing the ball to Ray Rice? Yeah, probably," he said. "But they're getting the ball to their tight ends and getting it downfield to Jacoby Jones and Torrey Smith, whom I've always loved. So they're putting a little different window dressing on it."
The consensus of media power rankings has the Ravens somewhere between the fifth- and eighth-best team in the league. Schatz has them eighth but clearly behind fellow AFC contenders Denver, New England and Houston.
He said that's actually a little better than he predicted in the preseason, when he was troubled by the Achilles injury to Suggs and by the team's unsettled offensive line. The Ravens make the playoffs in 97 percent of Schatz's simulations of the rest of the season and win their division about 2/3 of the time.
Finding new ways to win
What's interesting, he said, is that they've reached this point completely differently than he would have expected.
On the plus side, Suggs is back, the offensive line has played well and the special teams, led by rookie kicker Justin Tucker and free-agent signee Jacoby Jones, have been the best in the league.
On the downside, the Ravens rank near the bottom of the league in covering No. 1 and No. 2 receivers and dead last in stopping runs at the line of scrimmage. The injuries to their best cornerback, Webb, and their best defensive lineman, Ngata, have direct bearing on both areas. The Ravens are also the NFL's fifth most inconsistent team, according to Schatz.
"I would've expected their defense to be better," he said. "And this isn't a situation like the Giants last year, where they got healthy right before the playoffs. The Ravens appear to be stuck with these injuries. So the question is: Can they get the defense back to being above average? If they can do that, they become much more serious contenders."
Baltimore fans also have their doubts about the defense.
"I believe the Ravens will make the playoffs," said Mark Eisner of Sykesville. "I do not believe they will go particularly deep, though. I see injuries, age and under-performance in a lot of key spots and skill positions."
"Most die-hard fans, including myself, see the writing on the wall," added Chris Knoerlein of Rodgers Forge. "Our defense has been decimated by season-ending injuries, the departure of solid veterans and young talent still coming into their own. It didn't help that they ran into a buzzsaw otherwise known as the Houston Texans a few weeks ago. That game put us in our place and established the clear cut stud of the AFC."
The team's defensive stars are certainly aware that the unit's performance hasn't lived up to past standards. The Ravens haven't finished outside the league's top 10 in total defense since 2002 but currently rank 26th. Asked recently if the struggles have shocked him, Suggs, in his typically booming tone, said it's too early for gloom and doom.
"Everything we still want to do, all the goals we set at the beginning of the season, are still there," he said. "Every defense, you don't say, 'Our goal is to be this rank and that rank.' Your goal is to win your division, get the first-round bye and make it to the playoffs and contend for the Super Bowl. Traditionally, you need a great defense to achieve those things, and we are going to get back to being a great defense."
In general, the Ravens say they need to get better to go deep in the playoffs. But the locker-room vibe remains that of an assured contender.
It's going to be a tough stretch for us, but to be 7-2 right now, where we are at, feels pretty good," Rice said. "If we were on the flipside of it going into this tough stretch, it would be very difficult. But right now, to be 7-2 and know that we control our destiny and not any other team is a pretty good feeling."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun