Preston: After facing weak AFC North, Ravens get a chance to test themselves against league’s elite

Tight end Mark Andrews and Guard Marshal Yanda speak with reporters in the locker room after their 23-17 win over the Bengals.

The Ravens finished off a third straight game against an AFC North opponent with a 23-17 win against the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday, and thank goodness they don’t play another division opponent for three more weeks.

It’s hard to take, and even harder to watch.


There was a time when the AFC North was the toughest division in the NFL and Ravens versus Steelers was the most physical and entertaining rivalry in the league, but not anymore.

Entertaining? Watching another rerun of “Frasier” is more appealing.


That’s why the Ravens need to fast-forward to the next two games. Up next are the Seahawks in Seattle, followed by a bye and then a nationally televised game at home against the defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots.

In Seattle, quarterback Russell Wilson is playing his best ball in recent years and has found a good young receiver in DK Metcalf. On defense the Seahawks have end Jadeveon Clowney and linebacker Bobby Wagner.

New England has quarterback Tom Brady, coach Bill Belichick and six Super Bowl rings. Enough said.

“We stick towards our goals. These are definitely wins we should have gotten,” Ravens outside linebacker Pernell McPhee said. “We go on the road next week, play a playoff contending team, so we are going to see where we are at next week.”



So far, the Ravens aren’t that much better than last season, when they lost in the first round of the playoffs in a wild-card game. There are several areas in which they have improved, but they have experienced some regression as well.

It’s hard to get a good read on them when they’re playing AFC North opponents. The Cleveland Browns have talent but are in the middle of an identity crisis because they still haven’t figured out how to win consistently.

The Steelers have a rookie starting quarterback, a No. 1 receiver in JuJu Smith-Schuster who is really a No. 2, a coach on the hot seat and a team that is heading south almost as fast as the Bengals.

Oh, the Bengals.

They can’t run or stop the run. They have little athleticism on defense and quarterback Andy Dalton can’t hit the ground if he dropped the ball. Calling them pathetic would be giving them a compliment.

But yet on Sunday, the Ravens, who had 497 yards of total offense compared with 250 for Cincinnati and nearly a 19-minute advantage in time of possession, had to recover an onside kick with 1:28 left in the game to secure the victory.

Bring on the Seahawks and Patriots. Please. The Ravens need to be challenged. Fans want to stay awake.

“To be the team we can be, our guys know this, we need to keep improving our efficiency, not giving opponents opportunities that they really haven’t earned and take advantage of the opportunities as they present themselves to us more,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said.

“That’s the thing that we have to keep working on. That’s the difference between good and great in the National Football League, and that’s what we’ll focus on.”

Harbaugh knows he can’t get too carried away with recent wins. It’s great to see second-year quarterback Lamar Jackson rush for 152 yards and throw for 236 against Cincinnati. It reminds you of recreation ball when you have the biggest and best player on the field.

But can Jackson do it against Seattle and New England? He hasn’t beaten the Kansas City Chiefs yet despite two opportunities and lost in the playoffs to the Los Angeles Chargers last year after a first-half meltdown.

On Sunday, Dalton did a nice job of getting the ball out quickly, but the Ravens still had trouble pressuring the quarterback until Cincinnati had no other choice but to throw.

Brady and Wilson will eat this defense up if the Ravens can’t hurry or knock them around.

The new moves of inserting Josh Bynes at middle linebacker and moving Patrick Onwuasor to weak-side linebacker, as well as adding linebacker L.J. Fort to the roster, have paid off. Inserting safeties Chuck Clark and DeShon Elliott for the injured Tony Jefferson will also help the Ravens, especially with their communication.

But the Ravens haven’t been challenged by a good offense in two weeks. The Bengals were without their two starting tackles and A.J. Green, one of the best receivers in the NFL.

The Ravens know what’s at stake here. They know what division they’re in and what teams they’ve been playing. Even they want to turn their level of play up a notch.

That’s a good sign.

“We’re still young and finding ourselves for sure on offense and defense,” guard Marshal Yanda said. “But, if we can win while we’re still doing that, that’s great. No one wants to lose the hard way. We’d rather fix things up that need to be fixed while we’re winning.”

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