It's probably a mistake to try to make sense out of the preseason performance of the Ravens so far, because it might make your head explode.
The defending Super Bowl champions have been all over the map in their first three rehearsals for the Sept. 5 regular season opener against the Denver Broncos, so trying to draw any valid conclusions about the state of the team from its on-field performance or John Harbaugh's weekly postmortem is a dubious business.
Remember, it was just last week that Harbaugh said at halftime that he had never seen his team play worse than the first string did against the Atlanta Falcons, which left everyone wondering just what he was going to say Thursday night after the Carolina Panthers scored four touchdowns on a punt return, two interceptions and a fumble recovery.
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The immediate expectation was that he would be hopping mad at the special teams breakdown and hyper-critical of the three costly turnovers, but he was in surprisingly good humor during his postgame news conference and seemed a lot more satisfied with his team's first preseason loss than he was with either of its two wins.
Maybe he was just using his soothing airline pilot voice to talk us all through some more turbulence, but he sure sounded like a guy who was finally seeing what he wanted to see on both sides of the ball. The Ravens moved down the field efficiently on their opening drive, and the defense held Cam Newton and the multi-faceted Panthers attack in check throughout. The four blow-up plays weren't pretty, but they were easy enough to rationalize. Better now than when the games count.
This is probably a good time for a quick reminder to all the fans who have been wondering about Joe Flacco and his sudden penchant for throwing the ball to opposing players. The last time a game actually did count, he still had enough arm strength at the end to lift the Lombardi Trophy and shake hands with the guy who gave him the fancy sports car for being the Super Bowl MVP.
It only took three preseason games for talk-show nation to re-question whether he is an elite quarterback, so this is also a pretty good time to remind everyone that he didn't just lead the Ravens to New Orleans last season. He also threw the pass that should have put the Ravens in the Super Bowl the year before. That probably slipped your mind while you were wondering if Flacco strained something lifting all that money he got during the offseason.
The Ravens do have some issues, but none of them are Joe Flacco and none of them are serious enough to cast doubt on the team's ability to return to the playoffs this season. Fret about the supposed "Super Bowl hangover" if you want, but the Super Bowl MVP looked just fine Thursday. If there was a disconnect with Jacoby Jones on one pass and a timing problem on that throw over the middle that came all the way back, keep in mind that the Ravens are still in the process of sorting through a large group of receivers.
That's what the four preseason games are for. (Well, that and the opportunity to charge full price for four games that have no competitive significance.) They're all about evaluating talent and getting everybody on the same page.
Instead of trying to count the ways that Flacco isn't Peyton Manning, this should be a time for fans to count their blessings. Want to trade places with the Washington Redskins, who have no idea when Robert Griffin III will be cleared to start the season? How about the New England Patriots, who will spend the season dodging questions about the upcoming Aaron Hernandez murder trial?
The Ravens still don't know exactly how the receiver corps will be configured in two weeks, but the coaching staff had to feel a little less uncertain about it after Brandon Stokley made two nice catches on the first possession Thursday. They're still waiting for Ed Dickson to return and fellow tight end Dallas Clark to get comfortable in the offense, but several of the young receivers who are fighting for jobs took a step forward.
Things went well enough that Harbaugh could joke about the 28 points off breakdowns. For a guy who cares as much about special teams and turnovers as much as he does, that's saying quite a lot.
If he's not worried, you shouldn't be either.
Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here" at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog and listen when he co-hosts "The Week in Review" at noon Fridays on WBAL (1090 AM) and at wbal.com.