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Meeting goals in final six games key for Ravens to make playoffs

The Ravens need running back Bernard Pierce to step up during the rest of the regular season.
The Ravens need running back Bernard Pierce to step up during the rest of the regular season. (Mitch Stringer, USA Today Sports)

The Ravens may have spent the last couple days watching film on the New Orleans Saints, but the final stretch of the season is more about the Ravens than their next opponent.

The keys for the Ravens in the final six games are about building consistency and becoming more physical. If they accomplish those goals, they have a realistic shot of winning the AFC North or securing a wild-card position.

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If not, they will continue to struggle and be mediocre. The bye week gave the Ravens a chance to self scout, but the Cincinnati Bengals also gave them the formula for upsetting the Saints next Monday night.

Down the stretch, the Ravens have to become a dominant running team because that is crucial for an East Coast team that plays in unpredictable winter weather.

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The New England Patriots muscled up on the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday night and the Bengals ran for 183 yards on 36 carries in their 27-10 victory over New Orleans hours earlier. It appears Cincinnati offensive coordinator Hue Jackson has finally gotten the message, and he kept quarterback Andy Dalton under control as The Great Equalizer threw just 22 times for 220 yards.

Maybe during the bye week, Ravens coach John Harbaugh gave offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak similar advice. Kubiak has done a good job this season, but he sometimes gives up on the running game too quickly.

He did that against the Bengals in the first game of the season, and again later in Week 5 in a loss to the Colts. It will be tempting for Kubiak to try to match the high-powered Saints, especially since the game will be nationally televised.

But this time of the year is about wins and building momentum. There is no need for a team to throw 40 times against New Orleans, which is No. 20 in run defense, allowing 114.7 yards per game.

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Hopefully during the bye week, the Ravens got into the head of quarterback Joe Flacco, who hasn't played well in weeks. In the past two games, Flacco's footwork was slow and his technique sloppy.

Two other offensive players who the Ravens need to step up are running back Bernard Pierce and wide receiver Torrey Smith. Both have been disappointing through the first 10 games.

Pierce has rushed just 64 times for 229 yards. If he played to his potential, the Ravens could have a strong 1-2 punch at running back with him and starter Justin Forsett (133 carries, 721 yards).

Smith appeared to be coming out of a slump in the last game against the Tennessee Titans. The Ravens have received strong efforts from fellow receiver Steve Smith and tight end Owen Daniels, but Torrey Smith might have better production if the Ravens used him more in the slot to help him get off the line of scrimmage.

There isn't as much wiggle room for coordinator Dean Pees when it comes to fixing the defense. The front seven has played well, but the secondary has struggled.

It will be interesting to see how recent changes will impact this unit. The old group wasn't athletic enough to play man-to-man coverage, and lack of communication caused problems when the Ravens played zone.

Against Tennessee, the Ravens were successful with new cornerbacks Anthony Levine, Danny Gorrer and safety Will Hill. But it's one thing to play well against the Titans, and another to take on quarterback Drew Brees and tight end Jimmy Graham.

A lot of the Ravens' future success will depend on outside linebackers Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil. They draw the big salaries and are supposed to be the playmakers.

Dumervil has 10.5 sacks this season while Suggs has five, but the tandem has not played well against quality teams. If the Ravens want an improved secondary, then Suggs and Dumervil are the key because of the pressure they can bring.

Not surprisingly, the Ravens have allowed 40 plays of 20 yards or longer this season.

And few big plays have come from the return game on special teams, which is another area the Ravens have to improve on during the final six games. Returner Jacoby Jones appears to on the verge on regaining his old rhythm.

"In the return game, it's something that even though our kickoff return numbers are very high, we see areas where we can get more," special teams coach Jerry Rosburg said. "I told the players the other day, 'I think you all see this. There's still meat on the bone here. We need to get more from what we see.' So, we're going to keep chasing that."

It all sounds like a lot, but it's really not. The Ravens have achieved in all those areas from these players at certain times during the year, but not with any consistency. That's the goal now. If they do, they might be on to something big.

If not, well, the alternative is not good.

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