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Five Things We Learned From The Ravens 31-17 win

1. After weeks of debating the strengths and weakness of Joe Flacco, fretting over the health of Ray Rice's knee, and arguing over Cam Cameron's play calls, all that really mattered this week was that the Ravens offensive line owned this game.

You're going to hear a lot of talk about how the Ravens dominated this week by returning to basics and emphasizing the run. And there is definitely some truth to that. But what this victory taught us was, five games into the 2010 season, the offensive line is starting to jell -- in both pass protection and the running game.

It makes sense, when you think about it. It wasn't going to happen right away. Jared Gaither's absence at minicamps, his bizarre weight loss, his contract concerns, his attitude, and eventually his back injury, forced the team to shuffle their lineup at the last minute. And even though we tend to think of lineman as individuals (especially when they get flagged for penalties), they have to work together more so than any group of players on the field. So it makes sense that it took a few weeks for Michael Oher, Marshal Yanda and Chris Chester to adjust to their new roles.

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Flacco's game was, once again, a little uneven Sunday. He started hot and looked confident, and when he was playing well you could tell it was because he had plenty of time to set up, scan the field, and step into his throws. But when the Broncos got a little more pressure in the second half and Flacco's accuracy wavered and his receivers dropped a few balls, the offensive line simply bulldozed the Broncos out of the way for Ray Rice.

It may be true that Yanda isn't an ideal right tackle, that he's really more suited for guard. It might also be true that Chester isn't overpowering physically, and that Matt Birk can't manhandle linebackers or drive-block nose tackles like he once could. But here is the reality: Gaither's miraculous recovery seems unlikely at this point, so it's probably time to put him on the IR and move on. He has real potential, but he seems a little snake bitten. For now, this is the unit the Ravens have. And when you take a look at the last two weeks, they're suddenly playing pretty well together. They weren't even flagged for a single illegal procedure penalty this week, which seems like it hasn't happened in forever. Todd Heap, Ray Rice and Le'Ron McClain all seem to understand where the line will likely need help in pass protection.

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This team, and this line, isn't the same as it was in 2009 when the Ravens led the league in rushing attempts. So pining for a return to a full-bore running attack isn't realistic. But ideally, what this Ravens offensive line can do is provide a little balance. And right now, they're pulling it off. Cam Cameron could have told the Broncos ahead of time what he was going to call in the second half, and the Broncos still wouldn't have been able to do anything about it.

Just look at the photo above by Sun photographer Christopher T. Assaf. That's a beautiful sight right there if you're a Ravens fan. 2. With respect to Willis McGahee, it's time for Ray Rice to get more goal-line carries.

A year ago, when Rice essentially became the Ravens starter, the team managed to keep McGahee happy and engaged by giving him the bulk of the carries in the red zone. Rice would do much of the heavy lifting, zigging and zagging his way down the field, and then McGahee would come in and plow the final few feet (typically the hardest yards on the field to pick up) for the score. Unless you owned Rice in fantasy football, it was an arrangement that worked well for everyone involved.

I'm not sure it's the right strategy this year, however.

When he's healthy, Rice is simply a better runner than McGahee. He has better vision, better balance, and he rarely absorbs significant contact. There seems to be this belief that he can't get those tough yards because he's not very big, but I'm not sure I buy that anymore. He's quick enough that he gets through holes quicker than McGahee, and he rarely tiptoes in the backfield. He's not a dancer, he's a bowling ball, and his feet don't stop churning.

"Ray has proven he can run between the tackles," John Harbaugh said. "He does some flashy things when he gets in space, but he ran between the tackles and we were grinding out yards."

McGahee might be better in the kind of packages and formations you typically see on the goal line (two tight ends, crazy plays where Haloti Ngata goes out for a pass) but those plays have been somewhat ineffective for the Ravens anyway the past two years. They're not a great red-zone team, which is why the answer might be giving Rice the ball, just in different formations.

"It's hard to score touchdowns in the NFL, especially running the ball," Rice said. "The goal line is physical. Those touchdown balls, I like to collect. I like to share them with my offensive line when I get them."

On his second touchdown of the the game, the Ravens used Rice exactly the way I think they should use him more often in the red zone. They spread the field, created some space, and let him find a seam. He dashed through it, right into the end zone. That's the kind of creativity where Cameron excels, not plays where Ngata is the primary target on fourth-and-1.

(In the wake of such an impressive victory, we'll mostly forget about the crazy play call from the 1-yard line on the opening drive, other than to say if Ngata had seriously been hurt, it would have been an epic disaster and Cameron would have needed to wear a Zorro mask around town for a week.)

3. Kyle Orton could lead the NFL in passing yardage this year and I still would remain skeptical of his ability to beat good teams.

I know Orton leads the league in yards and yards per attempt, but nothing about this game convinced me that Orton is becoming an elite NFL quarterback. He understands the game of football a lot better than Jay Cutler does, I'll definitely grant you that. The Broncos clearly got the better end of that deal, which will only become more apparent as the career of Jay "Jeff George Jr." Cutler unravels in Chicago.

But Orton still doesn't possess the kind of arm that puts constant pressure on a defense. He took advantage of some marginal play by Dawan Landry (who continues to get picked on in open space) to throw a nice touchdown near the end of the first half, and made a nice throw in garbage time late in the game. Harbaugh was visibly annoyed about those lapses after the win.

But for the most part, the Broncos couldn't put together a consistent threat because they have zero running game, and Orton can't consistently throw the ball into tight spaces, or to the sidelines beyond 10 yards. You can win without a running game if you have Peyton Manning throwing the ball, but not Kyle Orton. In fairness to him, he's better than he was last year, and certainly better than he was with the Bears, but the reason he's throwing for a ton of yards is because all the Broncos do is throw.

All that said, this was supposed to be the big test for the Ravens pass defense, which was picked on often last year, and I think we still don't have an answer. We probably won't know how good the Ravens pass defense is until they face a quarterback who can make those throws I was talking about -- a quarterback like Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Ben Roethlisberger.

But from what we saw, it looks like Fabian Washington is all the way back (he had one of his best games as a Raven), and Lardarius Webb continues to get stronger each game. If Ed Reed is his old self, an area that was a liability last year might look pretty solid come playoff time.

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Not to make this about me, but a quick story, if you'll permit me. A year ago, a Denver TV station asked me to do a quick telephone interview prior to the Ravens game, when the Broncos were 6-0 and the Ravens were still figuring out their identity. They asked me if I could try to sum up the city's opinion of the Broncos, specifically Kyle Orton. I'm no homer, which I hope you've learned from reading this column, and so I gave them an answer I thought was honest and objective. I said it was an impressive start, but that no one really was ready to say the Broncos were for real just yet for a couple of reasons. No. 1, they didn't run the ball all that well, and No. 2, because they didn't believe Kyle Orton could make the kind of throws that are impossible to defend, throws deep to the outside, between the harsh marks and the sideline.

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I said if Orton could make those kinds of throws, the Ravens might be in trouble, because they didn't rush the passer all that well, and their corners were a little shaky. The hosts thanked me for my time, then when they assumed I'd hung up, proceeded to mock me as "yet another typical East Coast snob with East Coast biases" (which is weird, because I'm from Montana, and my father grew up in Denver) and that I'd obviously never seen Orton play (which was ridiculous, because growing up, I was a Bears fan, so I'd experienced his noodle-armed, neck-bearded ways more than I care to remember). They said I was going to be in for a real surprise when the Broncos not only made the playoffs, but went deep into the playoffs.

The Ravens embarrassed the Broncos that week, which kicked off a 2-8 finish to their season. I did not get asked back for an interview this year.

4. Often, it's nothing but a cliche to say that one team has a mental edge over their opponent. It may happen frequently in college football, but not the NFL. Rarely do professionals get intimidated, or play scared. But it feels different when these two teams get together. The Ravens really are in the Broncos' heads, and that's why this game was one of the most predictable outcomes in the NFL this year.

Remember during the preseason, when there was a lot of talk about whether or not it would be a good move to keep a player like Jason Phillips? The wicked hit he delivered on Demaryius Thomas' kickoff return was a great example of why I thought he should make the team. I don't know if he'll ever be good enough to get regular time at linebacker in the league -- he gets turned around in pass coverage far too much -- but he's extremely physical, and helps the Ravens on special teams way more than, say, Demetrius Williams or Troy Smith would have helped them at other positions.

Being physical really is part of the Ravens mentality, and sometimes that really does intimidate opponents and get them out of their game. The Broncos knew they couldn't run the ball coming into this game, and they likely gave up even quicker trying to establish it against the Ravens than they would have against another opponent. Even Josh McDaniels was questioning his own team's mental toughness after it was over.

"I don't think we played as tough against a team like this and mentally, for the first time, I thought our mental toughness was questioned," McDaniels said.

In the end, it felt like they just wanted to get out of town without suffering further embarrassment or injury. What kind of team punts the ball down three touchdowns with four minutes remaining? I don't blame the Ravens for falling asleep on the final drive. I can't figure out why the Broncos only started trying again when it truly didn't matter.

5. Billy Cundiff's kickoffs are the most consistent, yet underrated, weapon the Ravens have right now.

Is it just me, or does it look like Cundiff has the strongest leg in the league right now? He's not so much kicking the ball right now as he is physically assaulting it. Asked after the game if he is kicking the ball better than he's kicked it at any point in his career, Cundiff didn't hesitate.

"By far," he said. "It's not even close."

He obviously still has to prove he can nail a clutch kick in a big situation to help Ravens fans completely move beyond the kicking horrors of last season, but right now, giving him the job ahead of Shayne Graham looks like the smartest decision the Ravens made this offseason after trading for Anquan Boldin.

"My confidence is really high when I kick off," Cundiff said. "I'm just trying to continue to push push the limits of my body and figure out how hard can I kick the ball off within reason and still have some control. Obviously the deeper the ball goes, the harder it is for them to get set, the more speed our guys have, and the easier it is for them to run around blocks. I'm just trying to make a difference any way I can."

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