Ravens coach John Harbaugh talks about preparing for an uncertain quarterback situation when they play the Cleveland Browns. (Jon Meoli/Baltimore Sun)
The NFL is great at providing false hope and security within the fan base of each of its teams.
That's what has happened here in Baltimore. Because of the way they finished in 2013, the Ravens didn't have to face the first-place teams in the AFC West (Denver Broncos) and AFC East (New England Patriots) in 2014. It helped them appear better than they really were, especially when the NFC South turned out to be so terrible this year. (The Ravens went 4-0 against the NFC South.)
It's no one's fault, just the philosophy of a league that thrives on parity. But after last week, when the Ravens were upset by the Houston Texans, a lot of local fans jumped off the bandwagon.
All of a sudden, coach John Harbaugh needed to be fired and Gary Kubiak became the dumbest offensive coordinator in the league. Imagine if the Ravens lose Sunday in the regular-season finale against the Cleveland Browns.
Regardless, the Ravens are exactly what I thought they would be this season. They are an average team that hasn't been consistent enough to be labeled good yet, but still capable of making the playoffs in a league full of mediocrity.
They could earn a playoff spot and maybe a win in the first round, but it would take a miracle for them to advance further.
If they do, Merry Christmas, Baltimore.
The NFL loves these kinds of storylines. League officials like to peddle them with the parity angle and point out the Cinderella stories such as the 2011 New York Giants or the 2010 Green Bay Packers, who barely made the playoffs but went on to win the Super Bowl.
But they don't like to tell you about the Kansas City Chiefs or the San Diego Chargers, who always seem to get hot at some point every year and then fizzle. The NFL sets you up to let you down.
That's why the Ravens' 2014 season has to be kept in perspective. In general, the Ravens have beaten the bad teams and lost to the good ones. A 9-7 or 10-6 record at the end of the season is on par, especially for a team that has basically drafted in the later part of each round of the NFL for the past six years.
Let's be honest. Steve Smith still is a good receiver and has brought some toughness to the Ravens, but he isn't in the class of a Calvin Johnson or Dez Bryant. Torrey Smith, the team's No. 2 receiver, has been a disappointment.
The Ravens released starting running back Ray Rice and lost tight end Dennis Pitta to a hip injury.
So that left Kubiak with the two Smiths, a tight end who was past his prime in Owen Daniels, a nomad running back named Justin Forsett and an offensive line that gave up 48 sacks in 2013.
Yet so far in 2014, the Ravens have the No.11-ranked offense, Forsett has rushed for 1,147 yards, and quarterback Joe Flacco is having one of the best seasons of his career.
But this week there were numerous emails and letters suggesting that the Ravens offense was too vanilla against the Texans or that the unit didn't make enough adjustments or it gave up on the run too fast.
My favorite is that Kubiak didn't have his team ready to block All-World defensive end J.J. Watt.
Let's see. Kubiak drafted Watt when he was the coach in Houston and either practiced against him or watched him play for three straight years. But on Sunday he suddenly came up with either a bout of amnesia or a severe case of stupidity.
Let's try this one: Great players make great plays. For nearly 17 years, coordinators had a tough time blocking Ray Lewis, and they couldn't block Lawrence Taylor either in the generation before Lewis. That's what makes them great because they can take over games.
It's OK just to say that the Ravens have a good offense but don't have an overpowering offensive line. They also lack playmakers on both sides of the ball, especially in the back end of their defense, which is why they can't go deep into the postseason.
Once teams get that far, they start running into quarterbacks such as Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger. The Ravens were in big trouble when they didn't acquire a quality cornerback Oct. 28, the last day for making trades.
Injuries have devastated that position for the Ravens the way injuries have done so at quarterback for Houston and Cleveland.
But false hopes were built around the impressive statistics the Ravens compiled against lower competition, especially the sack totals. There was this belief in the Ravens' bend-but-don't-break defense inside the red zone.
To me, that was just another warning sign of a team that couldn't defend a large field.
With all these things considered — and combined with the stunning number of injuries — the Ravens haven't done that badly.
Some critics will point to Harbaugh's game-day decisions and clock management. Others will continue to criticize Kubiak or defensive coordinator Dean Pees. But it goes deeper than that.
The Ravens have to find a way to get out from under the Flacco syndrome, in which a team pays a quarterback a large sum of money but can't afford to fill holes at other positions.
If the team wants to sign more quality players, it needs to ask Flacco, or a high-priced veteran such as Haloti Ngata, to rework his contract into a more cap-friendly deal. Also, general manager Ozzie Newsome needs to become more creative in the draft to stockpile picks, or in free agency. He should have had better vision as far as seeing potential problems, which he didn't do with the secondary early in the season.
But overall, the Ravens haven't been a disappointment this season, especially for a team two years removed from winning the Super Bowl.
Unless, of course, you've bought into the false hopes that come from playing in the NFL.