Ravens linebacker Elvis Dumervil talks about the importance of the crowd and the play of the defense in the second half. (Kevin Richardson/Baltimore Sun video)
As he does after each game, Childs Walker shares his five biggest takeaways from Sunday's 21-7 Ravens victory over the Tennessee Titans at M&T Bank Stadium.
1. Some wins leave you with an uncertain feeling.
If you merely glanced at the score, the Ravens appeared to handle their business Sunday, just as they were supposed to against a struggling Tennessee team with a rookie quarterback.
But if you actually watched the Ravens deliver a listless first-half performance in a game they had to win to remain a viable playoff contender, the experience was a touch more unsettling.
The Ravens barely ran any plays in the first quarter, as Titans quarterback Zach Mettenberger — making his second career start — picked away at a secondary devastated by Jimmy Smith's season-ending injury.
It was startling how helpless they looked on their home field against a 2-6 Tennessee team that entered the game 27th in the league in total offense. Only an improbable Titans fumble at the goal line kept the Ravens from falling behind worse than 7-0.
A season-crippling disaster seemed possible.
"We weren't playing very well," Harbaugh said. "We were out of sync, we weren't handling pressure, we couldn't run the ball, we couldn't cut them off in the back side."
To their credit, the Ravens adjusted and owned the second half with a combination of stifling defense, quicker passes and a running game that gradually wore down Tennessee's defense.
It was a story of perseverance more than excellence, and the Ravens knew it.
"I thought we hung in there really well," quarterback Joe Flacco said. "I thought we played a tough game. Nothing came easy, and we kind of had to grind it out."
They'll take it.
But the Ravens have now gone three weeks without looking like the two-way power they appeared to be in their best early-season wins. The team that fell behind Tennessee would've been in real trouble against Drew Brees, Phillip Rivers or Ryan Tannehill, the next three quarterbacks the Ravens will play after the bye week.
2. The Ravens turned the tide by adjusting to Tennessee's pass rush.
If the Titans have a strength, it's their ability to generate pressure with a solid front seven and relentless blitzing. The Ravens knew that coming in but couldn't cope with it in the first half.
Flacco was swarmed, with the Titans blitzing almost every down. Even when Tennessee crowded the line for an upcoming rush, the Ravens quarterback seemed unable or unwilling to check to more suitable plays. After the Ravens finally made two first downs in the second quarter, Flacco failed to follow through on a third-down pass to Steve Smith, in part because two Titans crashed the pocket in just a few seconds.
He adjusted on the next possession, hitting Torrey Smith with two quick passes over the middle for first downs.
Those throws set up Justin Forsett's touchdown scamper to even the game.
In the second half, the Ravens neutralized the Titans' rush more consistently, using play-action passes and designed rollouts.
"I think we started to feel like we were going to have to grind it out, grind it out and wait to take a shot," Flacco said. "We hit some quick game — get the ball out of your hands — and that's what we were able to do."
This team's pass blocking has been a barometer of its overall play, with Flacco going virtually untouched in the Ravens' best games. Neither New Orleans nor San Diego brings above-average pass rushes, so if you're looking for a reason to be optimistic about the road ahead, there you go.
3. The Ravens' new secondary held up, but tougher tests lie ahead.
The Ravens essentially started over with their secondary last week, reacting to both a blowout loss in Pittsburgh and to the news they'd lost cornerback Jimmy Smith for the season.
Certainly, they never thought they'd start Week 10 with converted safety Anthony Levine as a starting corner.
After a rough start, the makeshift unit passed its first test.
Levine played especially well, with four tackles and two pass defenses. Harbaugh said Levine could officially be dubbed an NFL cornerback based on his effort, and running mate Lardarius Webb praised him for always being near the ball.
Danny Gorrer also managed his first interception for the Ravens.
Webb had challenged the inexperienced group to live up to the franchise's past standard of excellence, and he sounded like a proud papa after the game.
If we're thinking glass-half-empty, however, it's fair to note Mettenberger had his way with the secondary until the Ravens revved up their pass rush. The Ravens ultimately finished with five sacks and eight quarterback hits. After throwing for 98 yards in the first quarter, Mettenberger managed just 81 the rest of the game.
The exams are about to get significantly harder, with Drew Brees and Philip Rivers immediately ahead on the post-bye schedule. If Sunday's game was any evidence, the Ravens' defensive front will have to harass those top-shelf quarterbacks for the secondary to thrive in a post-Smith world.
4. The Ravens' 2014 rookie class has been terrific.
Defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan could carry this note alone after another impressive outing that included his first career sack.
The team's second-round pick has been a revelation since returning from an early-season knee injury, with his explosiveness up the middle offering a potent complement to the bulkier Brandon Williams and Haloti Ngata.
"I get the feeling that there's more to come," a beaming Jernigan said when asked about his hit on Mettenberger.
We already knew about linebacker C.J. Mosley, who quickly established himself as one of the NFL's top defensive rookies.
Offensive guard John Urschel, running back Lorenzo Taliaferro, tight end Crockett Gillmore and safety Terrence Brooks have all played well at times. And that doesn't even account for undrafted free agent James Hurst, who filled in as a starter at left tackle.
Injuries have forced the Ravens to call on these rookies more than expected, and so far, the class includes few dead spots. It feels like a return to form for a smart-drafting franchise after the 2013 class delivered more mixed results.
5. With the bye week ahead, it's impossible to guess where this is going.
If you have a grip on the AFC North, more power to you, because I have no clue.
In Cincinnati Thursday, Andy Dalton delivered as bad a performance as you'll ever see from an NFL quarterback as the Bengals fell meekly to the Cleveland Browns. Then the Pittsburgh Steelers, having just thrashed the Ravens, inexplicably lost to the lowly New York Jets.
Based on the weekend's events, the Browns are now the fourth of four teams to look momentarily ascendant in this mess of a division. All four are clumped within a half game of one another.
Uneven performance or no, the Ravens significantly improved their position by beating Tennessee after a pair of excruciating losses in Cincinnati and Pittsburgh.
"Hey man, I'm used to being in a division like this, where it's tight," Flacco said. "It's going to come down to the 16th game. It always does. Obviously, we aren't too happy with the past two weeks, but you've got to look forward. … Nothing really came easy, so I'm proud of our guys, the way they stood in there."
The Ravens face the easiest remaining schedule, at least on paper. They've held serve against weaker opponents. And they'll get Cleveland at home in the last week of the season, which could loom large if the division remains so bunched.