The Ravens have started 3-1 for the second straight season. But this first quarter of the season has featured a higher level of difficulty.
They've had to win on the road. They've had to battle injuries. And they've had to overcome turnovers.
"To start at 3-1 is definitely a step in the right direction," quarterback Joe Flacco said.
The first four weeks have certainly put the Ravens on the path to their third straight trip to the NFL playoffs, which would be a first for the team.
The Ravens handed the only losses of the season to the Steelers and the New York Jets. They delivered back-to-back fourth-quarter comebacks. Their average margin of victory has been 3.6 points.
"We've got a bunch of tough guys, mentally tough guys," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "I think we're a very composed team right now. I think we're a very smart team right now. We want to keep building on that."
A look at why the Ravens' 3-1 start has been so impressive:
Three of their first four games were on the road. Five other teams had the same challenge (Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Detroit, Arizona and San Francisco) and none came away with a winning record as the Ravens did. It was no easy feat, either. The Ravens were the first team to play the Jets at the New Meadowlands and they were only the 12th visiting team to win in the past 50 games at Pittsburgh's Heinz Field. The reward: The Ravens play seven of their final 12 regular-season games at M&T; Bank Stadium.
No Ed Reed. The Ravens have to play two more games before Reed (hip), their top playmaker on defense, comes off the physically-unable-to-perform list. The take-aways have suffered in his absence (one interception in four games), but the pass defense has not. The Ravens lead the NFL with 119 passing yards allowed per game, which is 20 yards better than the next closest defense (New York Giants). Some could argue that the Ravens haven't played top-tier quarterbacks (Mark Sanchez, Seneca Wallace and Charlie Batch). On Sunday, the Ravens face the Denver Broncos' Kyle Orton, the league's leading passer.
Ray Rice has yet to get on track. Last season's run to the playoffs was spurred by the play of Rice, who ranked second in the NFL in total yards from scrimmage per game (127.6). A bruised knee and decreased touches has limited the running back's impact this season. He is 33rd in the NFL in total yards per game (76.0). Once he hits his stride again, the Ravens' offense will be that much better.
Winning despite losing turnover battle. History says that teams usually give the game away when they give the ball up. From 2000 to 2009, the Ravens had a 10-50 record (.166) when they lose the turnover battle. The Ravens have bucked that trend this season. The team is 2-1 when it commits more turnovers than the other team.
"I think the biggest thing is the fact that we're minus-7 [in turnover ratio], last in the league, and yet we're 3-1, playing three games on the road, playing three division opponents, playing a team here at home [Cleveland] that's turned out to be pretty good," Harbaugh said. "We've managed to still do that when turnovers are the things that really hurt you. That bodes well for us. That's an opportunity for us. That's something that we know we're going to continue to improve on."
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