HOUSTON - Their reputation hasn't exactly been a secret. The Ravens are a team known NFL-wide for enjoying a celebration or two. In fact, some days you would think they had Kool & the Gang piped right into their helmets.
Which is why the mood in the locker room after yesterday's 41-13 win over the Houston Texans was both refreshing and promising.
There was no gloating, no chest-thumping, no back-slapping. No one pulled a karaoke machine from his locker and started bellowing, "We are the Champions."
Though they had just posted more points than any other Ravens team since 2003 and given first-year head coach John Harbaugh his most complete win, no one was reveling in the accomplishment or basking in fleeting glory.
Their sights had already moved ahead, their focus already set on how their impressive Texas two-step might help them next week. And the week after.
Finally, we're watching a team more interested in maturation than celebration.
"I think we had a good game today, but I still don't think we're where we want to be," said tight end Todd Heap, who scored his first two touchdowns of the season. "We have a lot of room for improvement. If we can keep this going, where our offense is scoring points, our defense is getting the ball back, it's going to be good for us down the road."
The sentiment was echoed by players on both sides of the ball. This is a team that is playoff capable, has won three straight road games (which it hadn't done since the 2000 Super Bowl run) and has scored at least 27 points in four straight games (a feat never before accomplished in team history).
"Teams make the playoffs in November, December. Then you win championships in January," wide receiver Derrick Mason said. "We're just slowly but surely setting ourselves up for next month, December. We'll see where we go from there."
The road isn't an easy one. And as much as we can parcel out the positives from yesterday's win and make a compelling case for the playoffs, the Ravens also showed where they're likely to be vulnerable in the crucial weeks to come.
On paper, their defense totaled four interceptions, but on the field, the secondary continues to be a weak point. Sage Rosenfels is a journeyman quarterback who started in place of injured Texans starter Matt Schaub. Rosenfels exploited the Ravens' injury-riddled secondary, throwing for a career-high 294 yards. (The Ravens' interceptions were largely courtesy of incredible pressure from the defensive line. To their credit, though, they did hold the NFL's leading receiver, Andre Johnson, to 66 yards on seven catches.)
If a guy named Sage, whose own mom probably wouldn't draft him for her fantasy team, can carve up the Ravens' secondary with such precision, what do you think Eli Manning might do next week? Or Donovan McNabb a week later?
This is precisely why the Ravens' levelheaded approach is sensible and encouraging. The measure of a big road win can't be simply gauged in the standings. Often, the true impact is seen on future Sundays.
"I don't think a lot of people figured we'd be at this point," cornerback Samari Rolle said. "We can't get complacent. We have to keep playing."
Time will tell how far this team can go, but yesterday went a long way toward confirming just what this team is. Wins over the Miami Dolphins and Oakland Raiders were good and all, but winning at Cleveland on Nov. 2 and Houston yesterday lets us know the Ravens will be a part of playoff discussions a month from now. Not because they picked up wins, but because they continue to improve.
That's a testament to character more than talent. It might take awhile for the rest of the league to notice, but the Ravens are creating a new identity. Or perhaps more accurately, Harbaugh is cultivating a new identity.
Oh, there are still key and influential veterans, and they're still playing important roles. They'll celebrate a jarring hit or a timely sack. But no one's throwing confetti around the locker room after the game. No one's uncorking a Super Bowl celebration in November.
Heap attributes much of the change to new coaches, new players and the time it takes to meld these fresh ingredients into one. He said yesterday's win is only a "sign of what we're going to be in the future."
"We're not where we want to be yet," he said. "We're improving. We're seeing signs of what we're capable of, but we know we can get a lot better."
It was the Ravens' biggest win of the season, and the timing couldn't have been better. The schedule is about to get rougher and the climb steeper. Let's forget the final score. We'll know the true value of yesterday's win in coming weeks, when we see whether the Ravens are true to their word, whether they can build on something that already felt close to complete.
"We are going to put this win behind us," Ray Lewis said, "and keep on rolling."