The Ravens will start the second half of the 2015 season in a position they did not expect.
At 2-6, they are far closer in the AFC North to the last-place Cleveland Browns (2-7) than the second-place Pittsburgh Steelers (5-4). The Cincinnati Bengals (8-0) are threatening to sew up another AFC North title before December.
However, the Ravens seemed rejuvenated Monday after returning from the bye week. Cornerback Jimmy Smith spoke of making "history" and becoming the first 2-6 team under the current playoff format to qualify for the postseason.
Can a Ravens' team that has struggled at times on offense and played extremely poor defense put it together in time to make an unlikely playoff push?
As they get ready for the second half, which will officially begin with Sunday's game against the Jacksonville Jaguars, the Ravens have plenty of questions to answer.
1. How will the offense succeed without Steve Smith Sr.?
For all the talk about the inconsistency of quarterback Joe Flacco and of Marc Trestman's group as a whole, they entered the bye week among the NFL's top 10 teams in total offense. Of course, Steve Smith Sr. was a big reason why, and he's out for the rest of the season after tearing his right Achilles tendon in the victory over the San Diego Chargers.
Smith was responsible for more than 30 percent of Flacco's passing yards. With him gone, Kamar Aiken will become the team's No. 1 receiver and Chris Givens, Jeremy Ross and potentially Jeremy Butler will step into bigger roles. The Ravens will need Flacco to play near-flawless football and receiver Marlon Brown to start making something out of his playing time.
What would also help is for the Ravens running game to find its rhythm. There have been glimpses of a dominant running game, which the Ravens had for much of last season, but there's been no consistency in that area from Justin Forsett and company. That has to change if the Ravens are going to be a good offensive team in the second half.
2. Can the Ravens fix their defense?
Defensive coordinator Dean Pees, the subject of much criticism amid the Ravens' disappointing start, has tried just about everything. The Ravens have blitzed more, altered coverages and changed some of their personnel. Still, they rank 24th in the league in team defense, and there's been few obvious signs of improvement.
Even the run defense, which had been one of the team's strengths, has looked vulnerable the past couple of weeks.
The Ravens haven't been able to replace Terrell Suggs and get steady pressure without blitzing, and that has put even more pressure on a much-maligned secondary. By now, the Ravens should be on the same page on the back end, and better communication and tackling would go a long way.
However, until the Ravens figure out a way to mount a consistent pass rush, until Jimmy Smith returns to form as a shutdown corner, until they start forcing a couple of turnovers — they haven't caused one since Week 3 — it's going to be hard to imagine the defense getting too much better.
3. Will Breshad Perriman actually play this year?
What started as a "day-to-day" knee injury has already cost rookie first-round NFL draft pick Breshad Perriman more than two months of the regular season and there's been no indication that the wide receiver's return is imminent. As coach John Harbaugh said Monday, "the clock is ticking" on Perriman's season.
Perriman, who has a strained posterior cruciate ligament, had his knee scoped on Oct. 1. The team hoped that would accelerate his recovery. However, Perriman hasn't practiced since and he hasn't been on the field during pregame warmups, catching footballs and simulating routes.
The Ravens are holding out as long as they possibly can, knowing how important it is for the rookie to get some NFL experience and show the organization what he can do. However, if Perriman doesn't show significant progress and get back on the practice field at some point very soon, the Ravens have little choice but to put the rookie on injured reserve and chalk up his season as a total loss.
4. What decision will Dennis Pitta make?
Since returning to practice on Oct. 21, the veteran tight end has had no setbacks, but that is only one consideration in his potential return from his second fractured and dislocated hip. Pitta acknowledged late last month that he still had physical and mental hurdles to clear and he needed to speak to doctors and family members before deciding to play again.
If he decides to return, it would obviously give Flacco and company a much-needed playmaker. But the Ravens are leaving the decision entirely up to Pitta and the doctors.
Pitta, who is still on the physically unable to perform list, is at the end of his 21-day practice window. By 4 p.m. Wednesday, the Ravens will have to either activate Pitta to the 53-man roster or he'll spend the rest of the season on the PUP list. If he doesn't return this year, Pitta's career might very well be over.
5. Which young players will get more opportunities?
Predictably, Harbaugh has said that the Ravens aren't conceding anything and that will remain the organization's stance until they are mathematically eliminated from playoff contention. That might take a while too, given how wide open the AFC is this year.
The coaching staff will probably be a little more aggressive in finding snaps for some of the younger players, but it's too early to turn to evaluation mode at the expense of key veterans.
When and if the Ravens reach that stage, it would make sense for rookies, such as running back Buck Allen and tight end Maxx Williams, to be more involved in the offensive game plan. Rookie cornerback Tray Walker could have a role on defense and second-year safety Terrence Brooks could be in line for increased snaps. Finally healthy, defensive end Brent Urban should get a long look. The Ravens also could finally let former second-round pick Arthur Brown play a little bit on defense. He hasn't played a defensive snap since the 2013 season.