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Ravens look to sustain, build on formula that has gotten them into playoff contention

Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco seemed genuinely conflicted, both as he spoke to reporters after the victory over the Houston Texans on Monday night and again shortly after as he sat quietly in a mostly empty M&T Bank Stadium locker room early Tuesday morning and flipped through messages on his cellphone.

The Ravens had just beaten the Texans, 23-16, leapfrogging the Buffalo Bills into the AFC’s second wild-card spot. For a quarterback who has always believed he should be defined by wins and losses, the team’s third victory in the past four games was reason enough to celebrate.

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However, the way in which the latest win came and the formula the Ravens (6-5) have relied on to get back into playoff contention hasn’t been lost on Flacco. The Ravens are winning mostly with their defense creating turnovers and keeping the opposition out of the end zone and with the offense avoiding key mistakes and setting up ace kicker Justin Tucker for field goals.

Ravens fans aren’t the only ones questioning whether the formula is sustainable for a playoff run through December and January, when the competition gets much tougher.

“In order for us to take the next step for real, we’re going to have to let it loose a little bit and see where it takes us,” Flacco said. “I’ve been in this league long enough to know, if you don’t win the Super Bowl, it doesn’t mean anything. If we believe we can win the Super Bowl with how we’re playing right now, I’m all for it. I really am. We can all take a look at that and say it’s probably not super-realistic. We need to go out there, and we need to go get it, and we need to be better on our side of the ball.”

Ravens coach John Harbaugh called Flacco’s take “spot on” and praised his longtime quarterback for playing courageously against the Texans.

“That’s something that we talk about every day. That’s something that we’re fighting to do,” Harbaugh said. “The first step is getting our guys back. We continue to work throughout the season. We have to keep grinding, get a little bit better every single day, every single week, in everything we do — run game, pass game, pass protection — all of those things.”

Ravens players and coaches continue to say the team is making progress offensively. Tight end Nick Boyle and left tackle Ronnie Stanley praised the group’s performance Monday despite the Ravens going to 3-for-14 on third downs and finishing with just 296 total yards of offense.

“It’s not the play-calling. It’s more us doing our jobs and sticking sound to our techniques,” Boyle said. “Every week, there are things that we can get better at, things we can fix. But today was a good direction for us to go.”

The statistics, though, continue to show the Ravens at or near the bottom in many significant offensive categories. The Ravens rank 31st in the NFL in yards per game (281.1), 32nd in passing yards per game (164.3), 32nd in yards per passing attempt (5.3) and 31st in third-down conversion percentage (.318).

According to ESPN Stats & Information, the last NFL team to finish last in the league in passing yards and make the playoffs was the 2003 Ravens.

“We do what we have to do to win football games a lot of times around here,” Flacco said. “That’s why we win games. Like I said, it just goes back to when we talk about wanting to win the Super Bowl. We’re not just trying to get in the playoffs. We want to get to the big game. You want to have all cylinders clicking — special teams, offense and defense. You don’t want to just go in with one or two of them. You want to have all of them, and you usually need all of them.”

The Ravens beat the Texans primarily because Tucker made three field goals, including two in the fourth quarter, because they sustained two second-quarter touchdown drives with a clutch fake punt and a fourth-down conversion, and because the defense forced Houston’s de-facto starter Tom Savage to turn the ball over three times, including twice in the game’s final five minutes.

Otherwise, it was another game in which the Ravens’ downfield passing attack was virtually nonexistent. Flacco completed 20 of 32 passes for 141 yards, no touchdowns and no turnovers, doing nearly as much damage with his legs as his arm, rushing six times for 42 yards.

Once known for being one of the NFL’s best deep-ball throwers, Flacco continues to have no success making plays downfield. According to Pro Football Focus, he was 0-for-4 on throws of 20 yards or more against the Texans and is completing just 30 percent of his deep passes. Thirty-two NFL quarterbacks have better percentages.

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On Monday, one of Flacco’s deep balls whistled through the hands of Mike Wallace, another was about 4 yards ahead of Wallace and another bounced harmlessly off the playing surface when Jeremy Maclin cut off his route; a holding penalty on the Texans on that last play bailed the Ravens out.

The plays epitomized the problems the Ravens have had in the passing game all season, from Flacco’s inaccuracy and decision-making to imprecise routes, communication failures and ill-timed drops. The Ravens kept things mostly conservative offensively the rest of the way.

“It’s how we’re playing,” Flacco said. “I mean, there’s a couple of shots for us to have out there and maybe make the game [go] our way. If you give yourself two shots and you rely on hitting only those two, there’s going to be games when you don’t hit them. So, I think it’s kind of our game plan; we’re winning games like it. In order for us to definitely take it a step further — we can win like this — but it’s not the easiest way to win.”

The Ravens have gotten back pass-catching running back Danny Woodhead, who missed the better part of nine games with a hamstring injury. Wallace and Maclin are said to be healthier after being hindered by injuries for much of the first half of the season. However, there have been no obvious improvements on offense the past couple of weeks.

Harbaugh, though, continues to strike a positive tone.

“We’re just like everyone else in this league, we’re trying to win the whole thing,” he said. “We’re not there yet, but they don’t play that game yet. So, the first step is the next step, and the next step is our next game. We have to be good enough to figure out how to win the next game and keep building off of that.”

That next game is against the equally desperate Detroit Lions (6-5) on Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium. If it comes down to it, Ravens safety Eric Weddle said, the defense is comfortable with the idea that it might have to go out and win another game.

But before leaving the locker room early Tuesday morning, Weddle said that while the defense wants the offense to be more productive, nobody from the unit is pointing fingers. He also made a prediction.

“There will be a game, mark my words, where it’s going to be a 38-35 game and they’re going to have to win it for us,” Weddle said of the Ravens offense. “And they’re going to do it.”

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