1. In good times and bad, this team tends to play to the level of its competition.
First off, don't grumble too much about a 37-13 victory on the road. It's hard to win on the road in the NFL, even against bad teams. But don't celebrate too much about it either. I said last week I didn't think this game would tell us much about the Ravens postseason prospects, and nothing I saw today changes my mind. The Ravens are still a good team with issues. They still have to improve their pass rush, their red-zone execution and their pass coverage. Ed Reed and Ray Lewis still have their moments.
Yes, Brian St. Pierre is essentially a fourth-string quarterback who, seven days ago, was not good enough to play (much less start) for what is arguably the worst team in the NFL. But to his credit, he didn't play scared. Carolina can still run the ball well behind a decent offensive line, and they have some good athletes on defense. I think John Fox convinced his team they had a lot more to play for in this game than the Ravens did, although his decision to start St. Pierre is still indefensible.
All that said, here is what I think we know about this team after nine games: They don't really have the mentality to blow away inferior teams. They're just not that kind of group. They get emotionally charged for big games, and they tend to grind it out in less important ones. Right up until Reed's interception, this was a bit of a grind. But that's OK. No one will remember this game a week from now, except maybe Dawan Landry's agent when he's trying to swing a better deal for his client at the end of the year and he points to the fact that Landry scored a defensive touchdown.
Everyone in Baltimore wants to see a dominant performance where the Ravens overwhelm an opponent and get back a little bit of the swagger they used to have, or at the very least, see them step on the necks of a good team in the fourth quarter and put them away. I don't know that either is going to happen this year.
They're talented enough to beat bad teams, but not focused enough to blow them out. And they're talented enough to essentially draw even against all the good teams, but not talented enough to dominate in the fourth quarter. That might be frustrating, and it may lead to heartbreak down the road, but I'd contend this team is still in a better position this year than it was a year ago — or even two years ago — to contend for a Super Bowl. Keep in mind that every good team seems to have flaws this year.
All that really matters after this one is the Ravens are 7-3 and leading their division.
2. Someday, Joe Flacco is going to put together two great halves, and it's going to be a real sight to see.
Against the Falcons last week, Flacco looked like he was sleepwalking in the first half, then looked like he'd downed 10 shots of espresso in the locker room when he led the Ravens comeback. This week, the script was flipped. He had a ton of time, but his first half was so flawless, he made the Panthers look like my high school's junior varsity. He made a couple of throws to the sideline that were some of the prettiest passes I've ever seen him throw. His touchdown to T.J. Houshmandzadeh was the best deep ball he's thrown this year because he hit him in stride.
"I think we definitely showed those guys we were going to try to take shots down field," Flacco said. "Even when we didn't throw the ball down field we were making moves that were going to push those corners back, and I think that definitely helped us do some things later on in the game."
Then in the second half he just ... stalled.
It wasn't that he played poorly. He didn't revert to Bad Flacco. He just wasn't as sharp. He had a few drops and a few missed reads, and all of a sudden, the Ravens were punting for the fifth consecutive time.
Statistically, Flacco has been very good since the Bengals game. (14 touchdowns, 2 INTs, average QB rating of 107.8). I really liked that the Ravens ran some no huddle in the first half, just to let Flacco get into a quick rhythm. What's even more remarkable about those statistics is it's not hard to imagine them being even better when you've actually watched every snap of the last eight weeks.
He's proved me — and a lot of people — wrong when we said he wasn't making progress after the Bengals game. Maybe that truly was just a bad day. (Though it's obvious his mechanics are better now than they were the first two games of the season.) He's not on the level of a Manning, Brady or Brees, and he may never quite get there, but he's learning something each week. The Ravens are going to need him to play really well down the stretch if they're going to hold this division lead, because the defense just isn't good enough to win games by itself, but he might be up to it. Playing two strong halves against Tampa next week would be more proof that he is.
A couple of people at the game were saying on the Sun chat that Flacco and Derrick Mason had to be separated on the sideline because they were getting a little heated before Reed's interception. If that's true (there was no TV cutaway), I wouldn't worry about it at all. Football is an emotional game. Players get heated, then calm down. It's not always a sign of strife. It also means Flacco isn't afraid to get right back in the face of a dominant personality like Mason.
3. I can make a pretty decent argument that Billy Cundiff is the MVP of this team through nine games.
I don't know that I would agree with my own argument — if I wasn't trying to be a contrarian, I think I'd actually argue Haloti Ngata, Joe Flacco or Anquan Boldin — but the fact that Cundiff is even in the discussion is remarkable. It's just such a weapon to have a guy who booms almost three out of every five kicks into the end zone, and doesn't flinch when asked to nail a 49-yard field goal.
His field goal today was actually kind of clutch, which is a strange thing to say in a game that finished with one team winning by 24 points. But at the time, the Ravens offense was sputtering, and the Panthers were within another crazy touchdown of tying the game. How did he respond? By splitting the uprights with a kick that looked like it would have been good from 60 yards.
Since this team is determined to play close games, it seems like there is a decent chance the Ravens playoff fates could ride on Cundiff's right foot at some point. You never know for sure how he'll react, but right now, that's not a bad foot to rely on.
4. Ed Reed's laterals might make you nervous, but today is a great example of why he can't resist them.
Think about this for a second: For most of Reed's NFL career, he played on teams with pretty pedestrian offenses. Thus, his mentality has always been to try to get points whenever possible. I feel like people who freak out every time he laterals, especially those who want to bench him for doing it, seem to forget the fact that he picked the ball off in the first place. And that the Ravens coaches encourage laterals. Even John Harbaugh wanted him to lateral there.
"I could tell he had Dawan in position," Harbaugh said. "Dawan was exactly four yards deep, the way that we coach it, maybe a little bit more. And the wall was set up. I wanted to score right there."
Reed is one of the least selfish players in the NFL. And it's obvious he gets a lot of joy out of seeing other people score touchdowns. Does he make bad decisions sometimes with the ball in his hands? Yeah, occasionally he does. But people also overreact. The Ravens have never lost a game because Reed lateraled when he shouldn't have, and I'm including the regular-season loss to Indianapolis in that statement. (They lost that game because of Flacco's interception.)
You can't take what you like about Reed, and not accept some of what also drives you nuts. If Reed were a famous writer, he'd be William Faulkner. Obviously brilliant, willing to take risks, a little bit mysterious, occasionally maddening and hard to understand, always interesting.
5. I hate to keep picking on Jameel McClain and Tavares Gooden, but they're out of position way too often.
Forget making impact plays, which I griped about last week. Both of them over-pursued gaps and left big cutback lanes today, which is a big reason why Mike Goodson ran for 120 yards.
Defensive end Cory Redding and defensive tackle Kelly Gregg didn't have a great day either, but there were times when the defensive line was maintaining its gaps, and McClain was so eager to get to the ball, he got swept right up in the wash. McClain got a sack on a blitz where he was completely unblocked, so his day may seem better to some in retrospect, but I remain unconvinced either one of them will ever develop into a really good NFL linebacker. Off the top of your head, can you recall a big play Gooden has made this season?
Physically, they both are fast enough to make plays, but 40 times are overrated for linebackers. It's a position of instincts. That's why Zach Thomas played for as long as he did, and why Junior Seau could still play into his late 30s.
It's time for each of them to step up and start making an impact. This isn't personal, it's about production. The Ravens aren't getting enough from either of them right now.
McClain had three tackles against the Panthers. Gooden had zero.