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Preston: It's time for the Ravens to make a serious run

In the next three weeks the Ravens will have the chance to show whether they are a serious playoff contender or just an average team playing out the regular season.

They should win the next three games, against the Cleveland Browns, Indianapolis Colts and Cincinnati Bengals, who have a combined record of 8-31. But it isn’t just about winning. They have to improve on some of the problems that have hindered them throughout the 2017 season.

Ravens coach John Harbaugh was right when he said earlier this week that it isn’t about the opponents, it’s about the Ravens. In the NFL, any team can be as good or as bad as any other on any given week.

Even the favorites have weaknesses. The Philadelphia Eagles, Minnesota Vikings and Jacksonville Jaguars can play defense, but their quarterbacks aren’t proven in big games. The Pittsburgh Steelers and New Orleans Saints have highly productive offenses, but have trouble with run defense.

Few know what to expect in Green Bay even though Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers will start Sunday after missing seven weeks with a collarbone injury. And what about the New England Patriots, the defending Super Bowl champion?

The Patriots are ranked No. 29 in total defense, allowing 120.7 rushing and 253.9 passing yards a game. They made the Dolphins look like Super Bowl champions in a 27-20 loss in Miami on Monday night.

So, despite losing 39-38 to Pittsburgh on Sunday night, the Ravens are in the hunt. And if they want to be taken seriously, they have to win convincingly against the three lightweights coming up.

It’s understood that Cleveland and Cincinnati are AFC North rivals of the Ravens. Also, if you look at all three opponents, they have lost a lot of close games. But remember, we’re not supposed to be worried about them.

The Browns (0-13) could be the first team to lose 16 games since the 2008 Detroit Lions. The Colts and Bengals could fire their respective head coaches after the season, so there could be a lot of quit in those teams. Kind of like the Ravens when they turned in that dud of a performance in the final game in Cincinnati last season.

But more importantly, big wins might indicate the Ravens have solved some problems. This is the time of the year when good teams separate themselves from the bad ones. They make improvements, such as converting on third-down situations, where they Ravens are just 58 of 176.

Part of the problem has been the vertical passing game, which has been a no-show except for games against the Oakland Raiders and Houston Texans. The Ravens should be able to work out some kinks because Cleveland is ranked No. 21 in pass defense and Indianapolis is No. 30. Cincinnati is No. 8, but the Bengals will be without top cornerback Adam Jones.

“Well, when you look at the other night we barely had any third downs until late in the game,” said Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco, referring to the Pittsburgh game. “Yes, there can be things that happen on third-and-long that can definitely improve our chances. And even in third-down [offense], we can be better for sure.

“I think the other night we did a good job of keeping ourselves out of third-down situations, to be honest with you, and we were pretty decent throughout the game. We could have been really good if we just would have hit on two things that we really felt we could have.”

The Ravens have also been notoriously slow starters, falling behind early in six games. They rallied Sunday night after trailing the Steelers 14-0 early in the second quarter, but the Ravens aren’t built to do that.

The offense is at its best when the running game is working, which sets up the play-action passing attack. The deficits force Marty Mornhinweg to call for passing plays, and like most offensive coordinators, he can’t slow down once he starts.

Defensively, the Ravens were dialed in the past couple of weeks but a lot of questions surfaced after the Pittsburgh loss. Actually, the Steelers might have done the Ravens a favor as quarterback Ben Roethlisberger torched them for more than 500 passing yards.

The Ravens couldn’t cover tight ends over the middle. Again. Without cornerback Jimmy Smith they couldn’t cover Pittsburgh wide receiver Antonio Brown and they refused to put rookie cornerback Marlon Humphrey on Brown. Harbaugh said earlier this week that if they moved Humphrey, it would indicate the Ravens were playing man-to-man defense and Roethlisberger would have taken advantage.

That’s false in some ways. The Ravens could have had Humphrey shadow Brown all over the field and still played zone or almost any other coverage. It’s all about adjustments and disguise.

In all honesty, they probably didn’t figure that cornerback Brandon Carr would play so poorly against Brown and did not practice with Humphrey playing Brown all over the field. Plus, that move would have limited Brown only slightly because the Ravens didn’t get much of a pass rush from the front four.

“Last week was disappointing,” outside linebacker Terrell Suggs said, “but if you don’t move on fast, it’s a high possibility that you can drop a level. So, yes, we’re disappointed, but like you said, nothing is more important to us right now than the Cleveland Browns.

“Sunday will get here soon enough. We have some things we need to fix, we have some guys banged up that we’re trying to get healthy. We’re going to take our time and get ready and when Sunday gets here, we’ll be ready to play.”

The Ravens have made a lot of improvements throughout the year. The offensive line has improved, and Flacco is moving better. They have a budding star in running back Alex Collins.

On defense, the Ravens stop the run as well as any team. They are creative enough to manufacture some pressure on passing situations, and this group always plays hard. The Ravens can still dominate teams physically.

But now they have a chance to take another step.

If the Ravens don’t beat teams such as Cincinnati, Cleveland and Indianapolis, then they don’t deserve to be in the playoffs. And if they don’t show some dominance in those games, then they won’t be in the postseason long.

The indications will come soon.

mike.preston@baltsun.com

twitter.com/MikePrestonSun

 

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