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With record 6-3, 'playoffs' no longer a dirty word

The Baltimore Sun

At the beginning of the season, when the Ravens won two in a row, this town was already buzzing about playoffs.

It was way too early.

But now after the Ravens beat the Houston Texans, 41-13, on Sunday, you can actually start thinking about the p-word. Go ahead, let it roll off your tongue. The picture is starting to become a little clearer.

If the Ravens had lost to the Texans, there would be few scenarios remaining that had the Ravens in the postseason, even with the Indianapolis Colts knocking off the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday.

But if the magic number for the Ravens (6-3) is 10-6, that record is a possibility because they have a realistic shot at winning four of their last seven.

There is some apprehension. The toughest part of the Ravens' schedule begins Sunday in East Rutherford, N.J., when the Ravens meet the New York Giants (8-1), the defending Super Bowl champions.

Some say that if the Ravens want to make a statement, then that will be the game. But the Ravens made a statement Sunday in Houston.

It's still an uphill battle because the Ravens are playing good football teams such as the Giants, the Philadelphia Eagles, the Washington Redskins and Pittsburgh. Even some of the disappointing teams on the remainder of their schedule, such as the Dallas Cowboys and Jacksonville Jaguars, will be tough.

But if you take a closer look at the Ravens, they are a much improved team from when the season started. They are nowhere near as bad as they looked in training camp and have made significant progress just in the past month.

Defensively, they are still one of the NFL's most dominant units despite several serious injuries in the secondary. The Ravens have a great front seven, perhaps the league's best.

But it's on offense that they have grown the most. The Ravens have established themselves as a run-oriented team. A young offensive line has developed into a solid group despite key injuries.

Joe Flacco is so far advanced in his development as a quarterback that he no longer can be classified as a rookie, and he is actually starting to spread the ball around to his receivers.

Another key to consider is the strength of the coaching staff. Defensive coordinator Rex Ryan has done a masterful job of working around those injuries in the secondary, even now hiding the hamstring injury to safety Ed Reed.

Offensively, coordinator Cam Cameron has been the team's top offseason acquisition. The Ravens are averaging 23.6 points with an offense that lacks serious big-play weapons. Not only has Cameron been innovative, he also makes good halftime adjustments.

Did you notice that the Ravens have outscored the opposition 78-40 in the past two games?

I know what the skeptics are thinking, and I agree with them. The Ravens have beaten only one team with a winning record, and that was the Miami Dolphins, who are 5-4 after beating the Seattle Seahawks, 21-19, on Sunday.

All the Ravens' wins except one also have come against teams without an established quarterback.

But is that the Ravens' fault? They don't make the schedule, they just play it.

In the past, the Ravens struggled with teams they were supposed to beat. This season, they're mashing these teams and taking control long before the fourth quarter. That's a good sign because that's what good teams are supposed to do.

We'll be able to judge the Ravens better starting Sunday. Of the seven remaining games, four are against NFC East teams, all of whom have winning records. The level of play there is much better and filled with more intensity than in the AFC North.

NFC East teams won't give away games the way Texans quarterback Sage Rosenfels did by throwing four interceptions.

The Ravens' injury-hampered secondary is going to get tested. They'll be going against quarterbacks such as Eli Manning, Donovan McNabb and Tony Romo. They'll be facing receivers such as Terrell Owens, Plaxico Burress and Hines Ward.

And we've seen what happened when the Ravens faced dynamic passing teams like the Colts, or just strong, solid teams like the Steelers or the Tennessee Titans.

The Ravens haven't won a game of serious consequence since Christmas Eve 2006, when they beat the Steelers, 31-7, at Heinz Field.

But maybe that will change Sunday, and for the remainder of the season. It's time for them to man up. Getting to the playoffs is still a major challenge but not impossible. At the start of the season, few were even talking about a winning season, much less the playoffs.

And if the Ravens had lost to Houston, the chances of a postseason appearance would have looked bleak. But now you can at least start mentioning the p-word, and few people will roll their eyes.

Listen to Mike Preston on Mondays from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m.on Fox Sports (1370 AM).

Faceoff: Will the Ravens win 10 games? PG 2

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