Now the Ravens need to prove themselves against an elite team

Sports columnist Mike Preston gives his position grades for the Ravens' 12th game of the season against the Dolphins. (Kevin Richardson/Baltimore Sun video)

The Ravens finally put together one complete game Sunday and some national pundits have declared they are peaking.

I imagine New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick is shaking while hiding under his desk in Foxborough, Mass., and Patriots quarterback Tom Brady can't sleep after watching game film of the Ravens trouncing Miami on Sunday.


The NFL is a topsy-turvy world that causes knee jerk reactions from month to month and game to game. But before the coronation of the Ravens as AFC North champions, there is something to keep in mind.

The Ravens have played one complete game. That's it. They didn't beat Dallas, Oakland, Seattle or New England. They beat the Dolphins, who had won six straight games, and that's more of a statement about the state of the NFL than either the Ravens or Dolphins.


As much as the lopsided victory brings optimism and excitement to Baltimore, it's hard to determine if the Ravens are in fact peaking because the league is so evenly matched. The Ravens might have found their offense Sunday, but Pittsburgh appeared to find its defense against the New York Giants a few hours later.

Tampa Bay seems to have found a groove and the Detroit Lions keep finding ways to win games. What does all of this mean right now?

"You never get too high with the wins and you never get too low with the losses," Ravens All-Pro guard Marshal Yanda said. "You just keep grinding it out and just try to be relevant at the end of the regular season and get into the playoffs."

That's exactly the approach the Ravens should take. No one knows where this season is going to end — not Ravens coach John Harbaugh or general manager Ozzie Newsome. The victory over Miami wasn't a statement or a barometer, it just showed that an experienced playoff team could take its game to a higher level while the Dolphins, who haven't been to the postseason since 2008, couldn't.

The Dolphins had won six straight but they were pathetic Sunday. After watching their dismal performance, you had to wonder how this team had actually won more than four or five games in the NFL. Defensively, they couldn't defend the middle of the field, an area the Ravens attacked repeatedly.

The Ravens were impressive offensively. In fact, this was perhaps their best showing since the 2012 season, when quarterback Joe Flacco went on that fantastic run through the postseason. But can they do it against a top opponent, and can they do it again and again and again?

The Ravens have had these strong offensive showings before, but they've lasted only a quarter or a half. They have to prove that Sunday's performance was more than just an aberration. Most of the same doubts about the team before Sunday's game are still there.

The Ravens have lacked a consistent pass rush and their top rushers — outside linebackers Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil — combined for one tackle. They still haven't beaten a quality quarterback, except for a slowed and injured Ben Roethlisberger, and the play in the secondary is still suspect, despite the improvements shown Sunday.

Offensively, the Ravens don't have an identity yet, even with the nearly 400 yards of total offense against Miami. The Dolphins weren't good enough to challenge the Ravens in any area.

But there was significant improvement in other areas, and more importantly it has been consistent in recent weeks. Quarterback Flacco appears more comfortable and is no longer having mechanical issues. He has been poised and in full command going back to the Dallas game on Nov. 20.

The play of the offensive line has improved during the last three weeks. It has keept Flacco upright and given him more time to throw. As mentioned a week ago, this offense will improve significantly if Flacco plays better.

Earlier in the week, he took ownership of the offense and impressed his teammates by doing so.


"When you have the quarterback saying this is what he likes, he's putting it on his back, so that's what you want," veteran receiver Steve Smith said about Flacco wanting to run the no-huddle offense. "You don't want a guy saying, 'Oh, no. I don't want that. I don't like that.' So a guy is sitting there and saying, 'Hey, let me make the calls. Let me do that.' And that's what you want. So, like I said, as he goes, we go."

There is one other intangible that few will talk about. Veterans such as Suggs, Yanda and Dumervil could have easily walked away from the season because of injuries, but decided to play. That type of leadership is great during a late-season playoff run.

Now, it's all a matter of the Ravens playing consistently. The front seven on defense has played well all season and the kicking game has been equally outstanding. But the Ravens haven't been able to put together a stretch of games with quality offense.

Until then, Sunday's win against the Dolphins was just a good win, but nothing that shows that this team is going to become a serious contender. Now, if they can put it together again Monday night against the Patriots, they might be on to something.

Then it's time to get excited.


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