Less than a half-hour after Sunday’s 23-0 win over the Green Bay Packers, all the turnovers and sacks the Ravens defense had just collected no longer mattered to one of the team’s leaders, Terrell Suggs.
The shutout, the Ravens’ third of the season, was a nice souvenir to take home from Lambeau Field, but if you asked Suggs, it was little else.
“We just have to build on it. You’ve got to be consistent,” Suggs said. “The worst thing in the world is to be mediocre. We can’t be mediocre. Let’s take the next step. Let’s get a game above .500. We’re taking next week like it’s our Super Bowl.”
Ten games into the season, the Ravens have proved they can play with anybody when they’re at their best, and they can lose to anybody when they’re at their worst. What they have yet to prove — and they’ll probably have to if they’re going to make the NFL playoffs — is that they’re capable of maintaining a high level of play on a consistent basis.
When the Ravens (5-5) host the Houston Texans (4-6) next week on “Monday Night Football,” they’ll be looking to win their first back-to-back games since weeks 1 and 2, when they defeated the Cincinnati Bengals and Cleveland Browns.
“That's the thing, we have to play winning football,” coach John Harbaugh said Monday. “I think the formula begins to present itself as the season wears on here as to what that is for us. We need to put that together to win football games.”
Even with their lack of consistency throughout the season, the Ravens sit in the sixth and final AFC playoff position with a less demanding schedule than most — if not all — of their pursuers.
They have the tiebreaker edge over the 5-5 Buffalo Bills, who have given up 135 points during their three-game losing streak and have to go on the road Sunday to face the AFC West-leading Kansas City Chiefs (6-4).
Other AFC wild-card contenders include the Miami Dolphins, who have dropped four straight games to fall to 4-6 and next face the AFC East-leading New England Patriots; the New York Jets, who have lost four of their past five; and the Cincinnati Bengals who were left for dead after they started 0-3.
The Texans are one of six AFC teams that are 4-6 and still have realistic playoff hopes in the mass of mediocrity that has enveloped the conference’s wild-card chase. A win by the Ravens on Monday would not only strengthen their own position, but it would go a long way toward knocking the banged-up Texans out of the race. With the way other wild-card “contenders” are playing, a modest winning streak might be enough for the Ravens to open significant distance on the rest of the field.
“Winning will take care of itself,” Harbaugh said. “It's not like you don't know what's happening. We certainly know who does what. You have to take care of yourself.”
What the Ravens did Sunday against the Packers was dominate the game with their defense and special teams, and get enough contributions from an offense that has struggled much of the year. Joe Flacco’s 21-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Mike Wallace on the first drive of the second half all but put the game away, and running back Alex Collins finished off the scoring with a 3-yard touchdown run just ahead of the two-minute warning.
The Ravens picked off Packers de-facto starter Brett Hundley, Aaron Rodgers’ replacement, three times and sacked him six times. They also forced and recovered two fumbles and made three fourth-down stops in the second half. In doing so, they became just the fifth team – and first since 2003 – in the past 30 years to record at least three shutouts in a season.
“The story is still to be written, in terms of what this defense is,” Harbaugh said. “We're in the process of doing that, so it's nose to the grindstone to accomplish that. What is says about that will be better said at the end of the year. We've got a lot of work to do and we have a really good offense coming in here with a really good offensive coach who knows how to attack defense in a great way. That's what our focus has to be.”
The Ravens have had a few defensive letdowns this season. However, when Sunday’s play wrapped up around the league, the Ravens defense ranked sixth in the league in yards allowed per game (306.0), third in points per game (17.1) and second in passing yards allowed per game (185.2). They are also tied for the league lead with 23 takeaways.
The shutout “means that we’re doing something right here,” cornerback Jimmy Smith said. “We have a very talented defense. We haven’t played up to the level that we would like to at all times, [but] we have a lot of talent and enough ability to get to where we want to go.”
Sunday offered more proof that the Ravens have shored up their once problematic run defense and they believe the influx of young players along the front seven will aid their pass rush.
On special teams, two long returns, one by Michael Campanaro and the other by Chris Moore, set up scoring drives for the Ravens Sunday. Justin Tucker converted on all three field-goal tries, and Sam Koch put five of his seven punts inside the Packers’ 20-yard line. Tucker and Koch are again proving that they are one of the best kicking duos in the league and the Ravens’ traditionally strong special teams units give them an advantage when the weather gets colder and field possession gets even more critical.
But questions remain, and they have lingered over the team all season, about whether they can move the ball consistently on offense to make a playoff run. The Ravens moved the ball at times against the Packers, but they were often thwarted by their own mistakes or a failure to convert on third downs.
“It’s frustrating not making plays that you should be making,” Wallace said after Sunday’s game. “Our defense is playing so great. They are playing championship-level football. Our offense, we have to go. We have to make some plays. We made some plays down the stretch, but I feel like if we have five, six turnovers, we should have 40 points.”
The Ravens still rank 31st in the NFL in yards per game (279.8), 32nd in passing yards per game (165.2) and 17th in points per game (21.3).
“Consistency is always where it’s at,” Flacco said. “Everybody could go out there and do it one out of every 10 drives. It’s about going out there and doing it every single time. The more you do that, the more consistent you play, obviously the more chances you can give yourself on offense to put the ball in the end zone and do all those good things. It’s always about consistency and we’re always working toward that.”