The National Football League is still winning.
Years ago it worked out a salary cap to promote mediocrity but at the same time give fans hope that their respective team still had a shot at winning the Super Bowl.
That’s what we’ll have here Sunday in Baltimore when the Ravens (4-5) play the Cincinnati Bengals (5-4) at M&T Bank Stadium.
It’s uncertain if both are dysfunctional and just playing out the remainder of the season or if one can get hot and do some serious damage in the postseason.
For fans and players of both teams, it’s about hope.
“You always say, and it’s true in football, ‘You are what your record says you are after 16 games,’” said Ravens head coach John Harbaugh. “We have seven more games to play to make that determination and to write that story, so I do believe we’re a very good football team. It’s up to us to prove it.”
“We have a tough schedule, but we’ve had a tough schedule up until this point,” he said. “We’ll get some home games here; we have to go win them, and that’s what we need to do. So, that’s our focus, 100 percent, on winning the football game and through that process be the best football team we can be, today, really, and building up into Sunday.”
Those days from the previous decades when teams built dynasties are gone. There are 12 NFL games this week and some will create buzz like Pittsburgh versus Jacksonville, Philadelphia against New Orleans, Minnesota at Chicago and Kansas City going to Los Angeles to play the Rams.
But the Ravens versus Bengals tilt is just as interesting. This game has enough subplots to be a prime-time soap opera. There are some who are saying this is the biggest regular season game in the history of both Harbaugh and Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis.
Who will be the Ravens starting quarterback? Is the running game and offensive line still in flux? Why can’t the Ravens defense, one of the highest rated in the game, force turnovers?
Then on the Bengals side you wonder how much will Lewis’ play-calling impact their poor defense? Is newly hired defensive coach Hue Jackson Lewis’ possible replacement? Will or won’t receiver A.J. Green play?
And of course, who will Bengals inside linebacker Vontaze Burfict cheap shot Sunday?
The NFL thrives on this kind of stuff even for .500 teams. Parity works.
“I think we all think every game is a must-win,” said Ravens cornerback Marlon Humphrey. “But, when you come off three losses, you definitely know you definitely have to win. Coming off three losses, I don’t think we thought we would be here, but now we’re here. So, it’s kind of what we do from here is what’s going to define us.”
The Ravens quarterback situation adds its own drama. No one knows if it will be Joe Flacco, who is nursing a hip injury, or rookie Lamar Jackson or Robert Griffin III starting. It’s top secret, but Jackson has the backing of owner Steve Bisciotti, which adds more intrigue to the decision.
The big difference among the three is style. Jackson and Griffin are more versatile and athletic. They can do more outside the pocket, but it’s hard to restructure an offense within one to two weeks.
Regardless, the Ravens will still have problems with an offensive line that has struggled with injuries and inexperience. They also have a running game in flux because of the recent addition of Ty Montgomery, who will challenge Buck Allen for playing time behind starter Alex Collins.
On defense, the Ravens are ranked No. 2 including No. 3 against the pass, allowing 205.2 yards per game. But they only have seven turnovers in nine games this season compared to a league-leading 34 last year.
The bottom line is that the Ravens are racking up great statistics against average or below-average teams but aren’t good enough to beat the good ones. That has to change with Kansas City and the Los Angeles Rams on the schedule.
“That was something that ‘Wink’ [Don Martindale, defensive coordinator] told us all to think about some goals that we had. That was one of the things that came to mind,” said Humphrey of the turnovers. “I feel like we’ve had a good defense this year. We’ve played some good ball, but we haven’t had those turnovers that fear teams into throwing the ball deep, running the ball [and] stripping it. We’ve had sacks, but we haven’t really had those big plays.”
“I don’t think really much needs to change,” he said. “I think a lot of them are coming soon. We’re a good defense. I think we all play fast, and turnovers come in bunches. So, I think there’s a bunch coming for us soon.”
The Bengals have their own problems on defense. Cincinnati has gone 1-3 in the last four games, allowing 2,117 yards and 158 points. They were so embarrassed in a 51-14 loss to New Orleans Sunday that Lewis had to fire defensive coordinator Teryl Austin.
Lewis is now calling the plays. Earlier this week he hired Jackson, a former Bengals assistant, as a coach. During his previous tenure, Jackson was going to be the Bengals new head coach once Lewis retired, but he didn’t want to wait, taking the Browns head job in 2016. The Browns fired Jackson on Oct. 29.
The Ravens can expect a few new wrinkles from Lewis, but the structure won’t change much on the defense either.
“I’m trying to prepare the Cincinnati Bengals — that’s my focus, OK? I can’t control who they put at quarterback based on his injury, whatever — Joe’s [injury],” said Lewis. “Our focus has got to be us, and that’s what I’m focusing on — getting us better and getting us righted. We have to be better fundamentally. Whether you call that minor or major, that’s where we’re going to start.”
The winner of this game improves its chances of playing for the second wild card playoff berth. For the loser, the season is basically over. But for the next few days, fans in Baltimore and Cincinnati will cheer on their teams.
Both are average and have flaws, but there is still hope.
That’s the modern-day NFL.