The Ravens reached the midway point of the 2006 season with a 6-2 record and a two-game lead in the AFC North. The next step is to develop a killer instinct, because right now it's definitely lacking.
They've dominated opponents early the past two weeks, but yesterday the Ravens almost blew a 17-point first-half lead before holding on for a 26-20 win over the Cincinnati Bengals. The Bengals certainly have a high-octane offense, but the game shouldn't have been that close.
A good team playing at home with that big of a lead shouldn't be sweating it out until the last play of the game.
"We have to step on the gas, learn how to close people out," Ravens safety Ed Reed said. "Cincinnati has an explosive offense, and we have to stay on our P's and Q's. We have to develop that killer instinct; that's what championship teams do."
The Ravens are in the second tier of top teams in the AFC, behind Indianapolis, New England and Denver, and right there with San Diego and Jacksonville. If the Ravens want to join the top group, they can't play around with teams like the Bengals, Browns and Saints, especially when they have a big lead.
The Ravens won yesterday, but the locker room was subdued, and that's a good sign. This team knows it has to get better, and the Ravens can't just rely on Matt Stover kicking field goals.
"We have to score points," offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden said. "We have to learn how to finish off drives. We've been through this before, and you've got to score touchdowns against the best teams in this league."
The Ravens added some new wrinkles to their offense. They ran a few more clearing patterns underneath, and slant routes are now part of the regular package. They had running back Mike Anderson take a few snaps from center, and ran a nice waggle pass off a fake reverse.
The offense is still vanilla, but an improvement over previous weeks. At least the Ravens are controlling the clock and not committing turnovers. But here are a few more suggestions to go with those slants and clearing patterns that we offered a couple of weeks ago:
Insert receiver Mark Clayton for Anderson because he is more of a threat as a runner, and he can throw the ball (he is the team's No. 3 quarterback). Keep throwing the slants to rookie receiver Demetrius Williams because most No. 3 cornerbacks or safeties can't handle him, and Williams has breakaway speed. Put the intermediate passes used last week against the Saints back into the offense because Steve McNair seems to throw them as well as the short ones, and a great defense will shut down the short passing attack.
The Ravens' offense has improved the past two weeks, but there is still more room for improvement. The Ravens had only 129 yards rushing on 38 carries against one of the league's worst defenses. The Ravens can stop the run, but now they have to improve on running the ball to be successful in the long run.
The Ravens took possession at the Bengals' 15 with 1:55 left in the game, then McNair took a knee three straight times before throwing an incomplete pass in the end zone on fourth-and-23 from the Bengals' 28. Unfortunately, that left Cincinnati with 18 seconds left in the game. Fortunately for the Ravens, Carson Palmer threw an interception on the next play.
"I thought the odds were better," Ravens coach Brian Billick said explaining the odd sequence of play selection before anyone had asked the question. "[The odds] were higher that they could go 80 yards for a touchdown or 70 yards and get a touchdown with the time given than the possibility of a blocked field goal. That makes you take time off the clock ... and time is important."
The Ravens should have run a couple of plays, like sweeps outside, or had McNair run around to take time off the clock. Inside the locker room after the game, no players wanted to talk about what transpired at the end. They didn't want to throw Billick under the bus.
Beep, beep. Here comes the Greyhound.
It was bad clock management.
One of the reasons McNair's play has improved the past two weeks is because he doesn't have three coaches in his ear at the same time. With offensive coordinator Jim Fassel fired three weeks ago, McNair only has to answer to quarterbacks coach Rick Neuheisel and Billick.
He certainly doesn't answer reporters. He had no clue about why he had to take a knee three straight times on the Ravens' last possession.
Despite falling behind early because of turnovers, the Bengals played hard in the last three quarters to make the game close. But these were the old Bengals. They were crying and complaining afterward.
Chad Johnson was angry after catching only four passes for 32 yards, and Bengals coach Marvin Lewis wasn't thrilled with some of his players, especially receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh, who received an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty late in the game.
"It shows a lack of class and, right at that point, we don't need it," Lewis said.
Midway through the fourth quarter, Ravens defensive tackle Kelly Gregg made a tackle on Bengals running back Rudi Johnson. It was apparent that Gregg took a severe blow to the head because he was staggering, and then made it back to the line of scrimmage. The Ravens, though, got him off the field before the ball was snapped.
Johnson also trucked over Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis on a 4-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter. The loudest noise came out of the Cincinnati coaches' box, where they applauded the hit.
Read Mike Preston's Ravens Central blog at www.baltimoresun.com/ravenscentral.