Now that the Ravens have a two-game lead in the AFC North with the second half of the season approaching, they should try to develop into a top-level playoff team instead of staying on the second tier. No one is trying to get ahead of himself with eight regular-season games remaining, but the goal is to go as far as possible into the postseason.
Everyone expected the AFC North to be one of the toughest divisions in the NFL, but this group has fallen apart at midseason, crumbling much as the Ravens did a year ago at this time.
What happened? Cleveland (2-6) has gotten better, but it is a year, maybe two, away from being a contender. Pittsburgh (2-6) is struggling because Steelers coach Bill Cowher doesn't have the guts to bench quarterback Ben Roethlisberger for Charlie Batch. All Batch has done recently is start games and win. That's it. The Steelers got caught up in their own hype from last season. Just because Roethlisberger won a Super Bowl in his second season, they tried to build their team around his arm.
That's not the Steelers' way. They're a blue-collar, run-oriented team.
And then there is Cincinnati. The Bengals (4-4) are self-destructing. Instead of rallying because the team has been ravaged by injuries and off-field problems (the Bengals played Sunday without three starting linebackers and two starting offensive linemen), they have whined about play-calling. It's an immature team.
That leaves only the Ravens. At this point of the season, a .500 record would have been reasonable, but 6-2 is almost unbelievable. And with the easiest schedule in the league remaining, the Ravens shouldn't collapse. So, now the goal remains to win the proverbial "one game at a time," but also to try to jump into the upper tier with Indianapolis, New England and possibly Denver.
What separates the Ravens, Jacksonville and San Diego from the Colts and Patriots? It's very simple. Quarterbacks Peyton Manning and Tom Brady operate on another level from other quarterbacks. The league has become so quarterback-deprived that almost all teams, including the Ravens, are into clock management. They don't want their quarterbacks to win games, just not to lose them. Indianapolis and New England have different mentalities because they have quarterbacks who are expected to make big plays and win games.
The Ravens don't have a quarterback or anyone else in that class who can take over a game. Middle linebacker Ray Lewis and quarterback Steve McNair used to be able to take over games, as did running back Jamal Lewis. There are other major differences.
Except for the Colts, most of the other good teams are balanced offensively. The Ravens don't have Manning or Brady, but they can keep working on the running game. It has to improve for the Ravens to become a serious contender.
Look at some of the teams with nearly the same record as the Ravens. San Diego, Denver and Jacksonville have great front sevens that can control the pace of games. Once you get into the postseason, inclement weather can drastically affect a passing game, but it doesn't have much impact on the running game.
The Ravens made strides in the running game against New Orleans a week ago, but coach Brian Billick couldn't be happy with the 129 yards rushing against the Bengals, who entered the game with the league's No. 25-ranked rushing defense. Thirty of those yards came on a draw play against the prevent defense at the end of the half. Lewis gained only 72 yards on 24 carries.
Somehow, that average has to improve and the running game has to become more effective. It might help if the Ravens used more misdirections, tosses and traps instead of just plowing straight ahead, which makes the running game stagnant because defenses aren't spread out. Teams with good defensive lines are going to give the Ravens major trouble.
But with eight games remaining, the Ravens have time to work these things out. The downfield passing game has improved during the past two weeks, but the Ravens likely will have to do more to stay competitive with the good teams. They brought in McNair to replace Kyle Boller. Instead of a gunslinger, they wanted a guy who wouldn't commit as many turnovers, and give them a few more first downs per game.
That has worked, and the Ravens look like they're in sync offensively. The offense isn't sophisticated, but simple and effective. They are dominating time of possession, and had nearly a 15-minute advantage over Cincinnati on Sunday. With a few tweaks here and there, the Ravens can only get better.
Defensively, the Ravens have to improve in the secondary. You can't give up big plays against good teams, because that makes for a long afternoon. The Ravens have invested more than $30 million in their secondary, and that group hasn't performed up to that level yet this season.
But hey, every team has a problem area. At least with a two-game cushion over the nearest competitor, there is room to breathe. The Ravens have entered the midseason mark with space above the bad teams, and space below the great ones.
It's not a bad place to be, and certainly much better than where they were a year ago. Now, they have to keep moving in the right direction.
Read Mike Preston's Ravens Central blog at www.baltimoresun.com/ravenscentral.