Ravens news, notes and opinions on AFC North, team MVP, injuries and more

Ravens running back Justin Forsett scores a third-quarter touchdown against the Tennessee Titans.
Ravens running back Justin Forsett scores a third-quarter touchdown against the Tennessee Titans. (Lloyd Fox / Baltimore Sun)

With all four teams two games above .500 heading into Week 11 -- the first time that has happened since 1935 -- the AFC North is currently the NFL's most competitive division. But is it the best?

Ravens coach John Harbaugh has been saying it is for a couple years now. Others have joined that chorus in recent weeks. But I'm not there yet.


I'd still give top billing to the NFC West, especially with the emergence of the Arizona Cardinals the past two seasons. And the AFC West, with the Denver Broncos, Kansas City Chiefs and San Diego Chargers, warrants consideration as well, although the hapless Oakland Raiders drag down the quality of the division.

As for the AFC North, it features four good teams but no elite ones. The Ravens, Cleveland Browns, Pittsburgh Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals are all capable and dangerous, but let's be honest: their records have a lot to do with this being the year the AFC North matched up against the down NFC South and AFC South divisions.


All four teams in the NFC South are below .500 and the combined record of that division is 11-25. The AFC South has the 6-3 Indianapolis Colts, but spirals downhill quickly with the Houston Texans (4-5), Tennessee Titans (2-7) and Jacksonville Jaguars (1-9).

AFC North teams have fattened up against inferior competition, going 7-3 against the AFC South and 7-1-1 against the NFC South. The Steelers' victory over the Colts a couple weeks back is the only victory for an AFC North team against a nondivision foe with a winning record.

You can't hold the schedule against the AFC North teams, but you certainly have to consider it when determining the strength of the division.

Most competitive? Sure. The best? I'm not seeing it.


Ravens MVP

Who has been the Ravens' most valuable player to this point? It's a question reporters that cover the team debate all the time, even with plenty of the regular season still to be played.

However, I'm not sure there's much debate.

Running back Justin Forsett has to be the clear favorite. He leads the team and is fourth in the NFL with 721 rushing yards. His five touchdowns put him one behind Torrey Smith for the team lead. Forsett is also fourth on the team with 34 receptions.

Quarterback Joe Flacco and wide receiver Steve Smith have taken steps back the past couple weeks. Right guard Marshal Yanda has played extremely well, but offensive linemen don't win most valuable player awards, in most cases.

On defense, Elvis Dumervil has 10 1/2 sacks and is on pace to set a franchise record, but the Ravens' pass rush has disappeared in big games. Rookie linebacker C.J. Mosley has been as advertised, but he has had a couple subpar games, too. Cornerback Jimmy Smith is now out for the season.

Forsett, meanwhile, has been a constant and the Ravens' top playmaker.

Ravens miss Pitta

Every time I see Flacco rush a throw or just hurl a ball to no one in particular, I'm reminded of how much the Ravens still miss tight end Dennis Pitta.

It hasn't been talked about a whole lot recently because there's no point dwelling on it and the Ravens should be used to playing without him, as Pitta has played in just six of the Ravens' past 26 games.

But his absence is still so apparent, especially when Flacco looks gunshy in the face of the blitz.

Pitta was Flacco's safety valve. He didn't think twice about throwing him the ball in any situation because he trusted that they'd be on the same page and Pitta would come down with it.

Owen Daniels has done a solid job, but the Ravens are still lacking guys to make plays in traffic and in the middle of the field. Pitta's absence might have been talked about too much last year. This season, it's probably not getting mentioned enough as a reason for the offense's ongoing inconsistency.

It's no excuse for Flacco, though. He needs to be much better over the final six games if the Ravens are going to make the playoffs.

Injury issues

If you're counting at home, the Ravens have 10 players on injured reserve, including cornerback Asa Jackson, who is on the designated to return list.

That list could easily grow by one in the coming days if the Ravens shelve reserve guard-tackle Jah Reid, who has a broken hand.

Only two teams -- the Jaguars (11) and New York Giants (13) -- have more plays on IR.

Safeties need to play better

Defensive coordinator Dean Pees and secondary coach Steve Spagnuolo were adamant Tuesday that Matt Elam has not been benched and they still consider the 2013 first-round pick a starting safety.

That, of course, is open to debate after a game in which Elam played a career-low 15 snaps.

I'm not convinced that the Ravens' best safety combination is not Elam and Will Hill. However, by no means do I think Elam has gotten a raw deal here.

There hasn't been a lot of visible progress from him in his second season. He has missed far too many tackles, he's frequently out of position and he never seems to be around the ball.

The same can probably be said of Stewart, too. Both need to play significantly better.

Leach makes appearance

It was good to see former Ravens fullback Vonta Leach back on the sideline at M&T Bank Stadium this past Sunday.

Leach, who was signing autographs and making an appearance for Xbox, spent some time on the field during warmups and said hello to many of his former teammates. He looked in good shape, too, although the window is seemingly closing for him to get back to the NFL.

I thought there was a chance that the Browns, who have been struggling to find a fullback, might reach out to Leach, given that they had former Ravens running backs coach Wilbert Montgomery and offensive line coach Andy Moeller on staff. But after cutting Kiero Small (Cardinal Gibbons), the Browns re-signed Ray Agnew.

If this is indeed the end for Leach, he had quite a career, playing 10 seasons in the NFL, getting selected to the Pro Bowl three times and earning a Super Bowl ring with the Ravens.