Carroll County Times
Carroll County

Ravens may be improving, getting healthy at right time

OWINGS MILLS - Winning a Super Bowl comes down to playing your best football at the most important time of the year.
Not to say the first three months of the season don't matter because they do. But look at the last three Super Bowl winners - the Green Bay Packers, the New York Giants and the Ravens last season - all teams that had glaring issues as late as December but managed to get hot at the right time.
Baltimore for example lost three straight games last December before going on to win the Super Bowl.
And like they did last season, the Ravens may be again coming together at the right time.
As bleak as their situation may have been even just three weeks ago, they have won three games in a row now, are playing probably their best of the year on both offense and defense, and they once again have the look of a legitimate Super Bowl contender despite everything that has gone wrong during different points of this season.
"It's important to be your best in December," coach John Harbaugh said. "I think that's how I've said it. 'Be your best in December and January, be playing your best.' If that's what hot is, then yes, that's what we need to do.
"We need to be our best right now."
Next week's game against the NFC North leading Detroit Lions will show just how good the Ravens are. It could also go a long way in determining whether Baltimore makes the playoffs. But the Ravens are clearly a better team than they were even last month.
"We're getting healthy at the right time," Harbaugh said. "We've been healthy for a couple weeks now. That's been big for us."
Tight end Dennis Pitta is back now.
So is inside linebacker Jameel McClain, who was on the physically unable to perform list for the first six games.
Wide receiver and return man Jacoby Jones is back to making big plays after dealing with a sprained knee earlier in the year.
Both running backs, Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce, have gotten healthier.
And cornerback Lardarius Webb continues to get better while working back from the torn anterior cruciate ligament that ended his season last year.
The Ravens are also getting better play from quarterback Joe Flacco. Their offensive line continues to improve in both pass protection and the run game, as Harbaugh has talked about the last few weeks. And their defense held the New York Jets to just three points in Week 12, the Pittsburgh Steelers to just seven points through three quarters last week and the Minnesota Vikings to just 12 points through 58-plus minutes Sunday.
"We're starting to put it together as a team," Flacco said.
They do still have issues.
Flacco threw a game-winning touchdown Sunday, but he also had three interceptions.
Torrey Smith has been held to two catches or less two of the last three weeks.
The running game averaged just 3.6 yards per carry Sunday against one of the lowest-ranked run defenses in the NFL.
And for as well as the defense has played for the last three games, it gave up two fourth-quarter touchdowns to the Steelers last week and two during the final two minutes Sunday.
But there were also a lot of positives on Sunday.
Flacco was 7 of 11 for 91 yards with two touchdowns during the final two drives of the fourth quarter.
Pitta had six catches and a touchdown in his first game back from the hip injury he suffered during training camp.
Rice averaged more than five yards per carry during the second half.
And while Flacco was sacked twice, Harbaugh said both sacks were simply a product of Flacco trying to extend plays with his legs.
"I can't think of one missed assignment we had offensively," Harbaugh said.
He also said that he thought the defense played "really well" aside from the two touchdowns it gave up in the last two months.
At 7-6, the Ravens aren't a lock to make the playoffs, especially with the Miami Dolphins also improving to 7-6 Sunday and with each of Baltimore's final three games being against first-place teams.
But several players said after the game Sunday that they feel like the Ravens are playing their best football of the year right now. And despite everything that has gone wrong for Baltimore this season, it may be once again be poised to make a run come playoff time.
"We've been through a lot, and everybody knows that," tight end Ed Dickson said. "We are better than our record shows. ... The sky is the limit for us. A wise man once told me, 'What you do in December people will always remember.'"