Baltimore Sun columnist Mike Preston gives his rant after the Ravens' game against the Cincinnati Bengals. (Kevin Richardson/Baltimore Sun video)
Maybe Ravens coach John Harbaugh was so irritable after the loss to Cincinnati Sunday because his team had a chance to move so far ahead, but instead fell slightly behind.
But putting it all in perspective, the Ravens (5-3) are pretty much where they were expected to be at the midway point of the 2014 season.
They have wins against the teams they were expected to beat — Cleveland, Carolina, Atlanta, Tampa Bay and Pittsburgh at home — but two losses against Cincinnati, and another against Indianapolis, both playoff teams from year ago.
If the Ravens had beaten the Bengals Sunday, they could have put some distance between themselves and the rest of the division, and would head into Sunday night's game at Pittsburgh with momentum.
Instead, the Ravens left Paul Brown Stadium in second place behind the Bengals in the AFC North, and they will be without cornerback Jimmy Smith for extensive period of time because of a foot injury. They now face Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who is coming off a record-setting performance from a week ago against the Colts.
The Ravens play a relatively easy schedule the rest of the way, but still have to face quarterbacks Philip Rivers of San Diego and Drew Brees of New Orleans, probably without Smith and with a secondary that was struggling when he was there.
Harbaugh had a right to be agitated. His season might have flashed before his eyes when Steve Smith's possible game-winning touchdown reception in the closing minutes was nullified because of offensive pass interference.
There is still a lot of football left to play and almost anything can — and will — happen. But before we move on we have to give out the midseason report card. Please students, sit in your seats:
Joe Flacco has completed 173 of 279 passes for 2,049 yards and 14 TDs. For being in a new system, he has adjusted well. He has improved his touch on both the long ball and short passes. He is making fewer mistakes than a year ago and making quick, smart decisions. But there are still times when Flacco makes decisions that cause you to scratch your head, especially coming from a seven-year veteran. Also, Flacco has step up his game against the better competition. He wasn't impressive in the losses to Cincinnati or Indianapolis. Grade: B-
Justin Forsett has been a pleasure to watch, especially for a player who was expected to see only reserve duty. He has been elusive, tough and patient. He has great vision. He has been a weapon as a receiver as well and one of the NFL's top backs in the first half. Rookie Lorenzo Taliaferro has also been a surprise and has shown good quickness for a big back. He will probably get more opportunities in the second half of the season. Bernard Pierce has been a disappointment and it is unclear how much he will play in the remaining eight games. Grade: B
This group has made a remarkable turnaround from a year ago when it allowed 48 sacks and the Ravens were 30th in rushing. So far, the Ravens have allowed just nine sacks. Right guard Marshal Yanda is having a Pro Bowl season and has been explosive off the ball. Right tackle Rick Wagner has been solid, much better than expected, and has a strong upside. Center Jeremy Zuttah lacks power at the point of attack, but apparently is making the right calls at the line of scrimmage. He is an upgrade over last year's starter, Gino Gradkowski. Both left guard Kelechi Osemele and left tackle Eugene Monroe have been solid despite injuries, but rookie guard John Urschel and tackle James Hurst were pleasant surprises when forced to replace them. Grade: B
If Steve Smith has lost a step, he must have been Superman in Carolina. In Baltimore, he has been as advertised. He has become Flacco's security blanket, versatile enough to make big plays vertically or the tough catch across the middle. He has the ability to make yards after the catch. Unfortunately, Smith has gotten little support. Tight end Owen Daniels has filled in nicely for the injured Dennis Pitta, but his health is always a concern. Receiver Torrey Smith, in a contract year, has been a disappointment and needs to add some toughness to his game. Rookie Michael Campanaro has promise, but he can't shake injuries. The Ravens need another receiver to step up in the second half of the season, preferably Jacoby Jones, who hasn't played well this season. Grade: C
Tackle Haloti Ngata has had a strong first half, especially in the last two games. It will be interesting to see if he wears down late in the season. Second-year nose guard Brandon Williams has also become a force inside which is why most teams try to run off tackle against the Ravens. Regardless, the Ravens have the No. 7 run defense in the NFL. The ends haven't made significant impact. Veteran Chris Canty has missed substantial time with a thumb/wrist injury and DeAngelo Tyson hasn't played well enough to become the full-time starter once Canty returns. The Ravens need to get more pressure up the middle on pass rushing situations. Grade: B
C.J. Mosley leads the team in tackles with 76. He will be a strong candidate for numerous defensive rookie of the year awards at the end of the season. Fellow inside linebacker Daryl Smith is second with 70. He started off slowly, but is currently playing well. Neither Mosley or Smith plays with power and sometimes struggle shedding blocks. Outside linebackers Elvis Dumervil and Terrell Suggs can dominate, but not against good offensive lines. If the Ravens are to get into the playoffs and go far, these two have to turn it up a notch in the second half. Pernell McPhee is versatile enough to play outside or on the line. He has given the Ravens an additional weapon in passing situations. Grade: B-
Let's keep it plain and simple. This group just isn't very good, and they won't get better without Jimmy Smith. If he had continued to play well, Smith was having a breakout season and might have earned Pro Bowl honors. Without him, the Ravens have no one who can shut down the other team's top receiver. Fellow cornerback Lardarius Webb has rebounded from a back injury, but hasn't returned to top from. The Ravens have safety issues as well. Matt Elam misses a lot of tackles and both rookie Terrence Brooks and Darian Stewart struggle in pass coverage. Grade: D
Justin Tucker has missed three field goals, but he is so reliable in crunch time. He also has converted on three field goals over 50 yards this season. Punter Sam Koch hasn't had a lot of opportunities, but has been consistent, averaging 47.2 yards on 22 punts including 10 inside the 20-yard line. The real problem has been in the return game, where Jacoby Jones hasn't given the Ravens a big play or much to work with as far as field position. Campanaro handled the punt return duties last week until he got hurt, so it will be interesting to see what the Ravens do against the Steelers Sunday. Grade: B-
Coordinator Gary Kubiak seems to have installed his offense without any hitches. The offense is vastly improved from a year ago. Kubiak, though, has to find a way to get more production out of his receivers. Coordinator Dean Pees has done a decent job with the defense even though he doesn't have much talent in the secondary. The Ravens also don't have many playmakers on defense, or one player who causes fear. Overall, Harbaugh has his team in position to challenge for the post season and the schedule is really in his favor. He just has to stay calm and keep his team as poised as well. Grade: B