As he does after each game, Childs Walker recaps five major takeaways from the Ravens' 34-27 win over the New Orleans Saints on Monday night.
1. The Ravens showed who they are in a game they had to win.
When I say they showed who they are, I literally mean all their key strengths and their one gaping weakness were on display in a crucial victory on the road.
After 15 days off, the Ravens had to feel considerable urgency as they tried to keep pace with the six other AFC teams — three in their own division — that finished the weekend with seven wins. Even if they were facing a reeling Saints team, Drew Brees in the Superdome is never a pushover.
The Ravens answered the call with a showcase of their many strengths. Running back Justin Forsett continued his improbable season with a career-best 182 yards, balanced by quarterback Joe Flacco's cleanest performance in weeks. The offensive line opened huge holes and mostly kept the Saints off Flacco. The defensive front sacked Brees four times. Justin Tucker booted a 55-yard field goal.
There was a lot of fun stuff here for a Ravens fan. And yet the defensive backfield was shaky enough that Brees kept the Ravens in peril until the last minute of the game.
So where are we with five games left? Do we know the essential nature of these 2014 Ravens?
I'd say yes, mostly. The Ravens punish mediocre opponents with their balanced offense and multi-pronged pass rush. And the good news is they won't face a single world beater the rest of the regular season.
The bad news? They give up huge chunks of yardage against good quarterbacks and if a few unlucky plays go against them, they become vulnerable in a hurry. With so many moving parts in the playoff race, it's impossible to say where the season will stand in three weeks.
This team is good enough to make the postseason and scare anybody, but January football is still no sure thing.
2. The Ravens' secondary was just as vulnerable as advertised against a top quarterback.
The secondary has emerged as the clear weakness of an otherwise balanced team, and the prospect of that battered unit facing a likely Hall of Fame quarterback was daunting.
The results were about what you might expect, even with Brees throwing to his weakest assortment of receivers in some years. He completed 78 percent of his passes for 420 yards.
All too often, Ravens defensive backs appeared to have their feet stuck in mud as they reacted sluggishly to downfield throws.
In the first quarter, Joe Morgan, who'd caught one pass all year, whizzed past Lardarius Webb for a 62-yard catch to set up a Jimmy Graham touchdown. The Ravens somehow lost track of Graham, who's only the Saints' biggest threat by several degrees.
Webb is desperately trying to lead a patched-together secondary at the same time he recovers from an early-season back injury. But the reality is Webb hasn't looked like the guy who earned a $50-million contract as one of the team's best defensive players a few years back. He simply can't fill the shoes of injured corner Jimmy Smith as a straight-up cover guy.
With the first half winding down, rookie safety Terrence Brooks made a tentative move to close on veteran receiver Marques Colston, who punished him with a 26-yard touchdown catch to give the Saints a lead with 17 seconds left.
Safety Will Hill brought the unit a bit of redemption when he stepped in front of Graham to intercept an errant Brees throw and return it for a go-ahead touchdown in the third quarter. Hill played well overall against Graham and was easily the secondary's star of the night.
His heroics aside, the Ravens vs. top quarterbacks will remain a frightening prospect the rest of the season. Next up: Phillip Rivers of the San Diego Chargers.
3. It's fascinating trying to parse the credit for the Ravens' revamped running game.
In the glow of Forsett's 182-yard night (Ray Rice only rushed for more yardage twice), it's easy to forget just how poorly the Ravens ran the ball last season.
They've jumped from league worst in yards per carry to top 10. And they've done it riding a running back who was probably down to his last NFL chance in training camp. It's natural to credit such a large turnaround to the guy with the ball. And Forsett certainly deserves to enjoy this.
Given Texas-wide running lanes, as he was Monday night, Forsett has consistently used his quickness to create extra yards once he's in open space.
But in pro football, the story is rarely as simple as one man's performance. How much would Forsett be able to do if guards Kelechi Osemele and Marshal Yanda weren't healthy and consistently grading among the league's best run blockers? How much room would he have if center Jeremy Zuttah and right tackle Rick Wagner weren't significant upgrades over Gino Gradkowski and Michael Oher, respectively?
Would any of these guys be playing so well if offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak hadn't arrived with a system that's always created great running numbers?
This is why football can be so fascinating. Talent matters of course, but so many parts have to work in unison that it's never easy to say why anything happens. One thing I do know — Forsett, Kubiak and the linemen are happy to share credit they all deserve.
4. Joe Flacco played his best game in weeks as he dueled Brees to a draw.
This wasn't Flacco's showiest game. He got lucky when Saints linebacker David Hawthorne dropped a potential interception in the first quarter.
But with Brees consistently moving the Saints, Flacco needed to keep pace against a porous New Orleans secondary. He did, avoiding mistakes and delivering confident throws in the face of pressure.
Twice in the first half, Flacco read one-on-one coverage against Steve Smith and stood in against oncoming rushes to get Smith the ball for big plays.
The receivers deserve credit as well. After a few down weeks, Smith fought his defender for a brilliant catch in the end zone to kick off the Ravens' scoring. Torrey Smith, meanwhile, played one of his best games of the season, fighting for extra yards with a rare feistiness. It seemed fitting that the Smiths finished with near-identical lines — four catches, 89 yards for Steve, five catches, 98 yards for Torrey.
Flacco finished nearly 200 yards behind Brees in the final tally. But he completed 75 percent of his passes and threw no interceptions. He'll take that kind of clean line, paired with an unstoppable running attack, every weekend of the fall.
Put simply, this is the Flacco the Ravens need to make a deep playoff run.
5. Justin Tucker is still the most fun kicker anyone could ask for.
As Tucker lined up for a 55-yard field goal to give the Ravens a badly needed 10-point cushion in the fourth quarter, I realized I fully expected him to make it. And as the ball split the uprights perfectly, I realized I've entered the "taking him for granted" phase with Tucker.
This is the first time all regular season I've devoted an item to the team's 2013 MVP. But don't worry, Tucker is as good as ever, despite a field-goal percentage that's a few points worse than his career mark. His outing in New Orleans — 2-for-2 on field goals, his fourth 50-yard-plus make of the season, just one kickoff returned against him — was typical stuff.
He continues to feel like a threat anywhere within 60 yards. His mighty kickoffs continue to be an overlooked factor in his status as a top-5 kicker in the league. He continues to play with joy and cockiness not normally associated with his position.