Ravens head coach John Harbaugh talks about the need for all areas of the Ravens' game to improve even more including the offense. He also discusses Joe Flacco's efforts. (Edward Lee, Baltimore Sun video)
After getting the weekend off, the Ravens will return to practice Tuesday in a position they haven't experienced this deep into a season since 2012. The Pittsburgh Steelers' loss to the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday assured the Ravens of entering Week 11 in sole possession of first place in the AFC North with a 5-4 record.
That, in itself, means plenty to the Ravens, who haven't won their division in four years.
"That's something that's really important to us," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said Monday. "Whether it's in a game or whether it's in a season, you want to get the lead. When you get the lead, you want to keep the lead. When you keep the lead, you want to expand the lead. That's what we aim to do in every game, not always successfully, but that's our goal. Certainly, that's going to be our objective during the course of the season."
If the Ravens are to maintain that spot, they'll have to navigate an extremely difficult final seven games, starting with Sunday's matchup with the league-best Dallas Cowboys (8-1) at AT&T Stadium.
After the Cowboys, the Ravens will play the first of two games against the Cincinnati Bengals, a team that has beaten them five straight times. They'll play host to the surprising Miami Dolphins, who have won four consecutive games, on Dec. 4. And then the Ravens will travel to play the New England Patriots, whose 7-2 mark is tied for the best in the AFC.
The Ravens will finish up with a home game against the contending Philadelphia Eagles (5-4), followed by always-difficult road contests in Pittsburgh, Cincinnati.
All told, the combined winning percentage of the Ravens' final seven opponents, entering Monday, was .644.
"We get excited about every one of these games," Harbaugh said before quickly bringing up the team's two most recent victories against the Cleveland Browns and Steelers. "We were pretty excited about Thursday night, and we were pretty darned excited about that Sunday afternoon before that against our archrivals. This is another one, going down there and playing a team with the best record in football and with the best offense in football. Sure, we're looking forward to that."
The Cowboys have powered their way to eight straight victories behind a relentless Ezekiel Elliott-led rushing attack and the steady play of rookie quarterback Dak Prescott. Overall, the Cowboys have the NFL's third-ranked offense and its top ground game. As good as Elliott has been — he's convinced many that he's not just the league's offensive rookie of the year, but also a front runner for NFL Most Valuable Player honors — the Cowboys' offensive line has inspired comparisons to some of the league's best units all time.
Many Ravens players and coaches surely watched the Cowboys rack up 422 yards, including 209 all-purpose yards and three touchdowns by Elliott, in a pulsating 35-30 victory Sunday over the Steelers at Heinz Field.
The Ravens will counter Dallas with the league's No. 1-ranked overall defense, and the top-ranked run defense, setting the stage for a best-on-best matchup under the retractable roof at AT&T Stadium.
"Certainly that particular part of the game, that matchup is going to be huge," Harbaugh said when asked about the Ravens' ability to contain the Cowboys' offense. "In the game, it's going to be very important. It might be the most important part of the game."
If nothing else for the Ravens, Sunday's road game certainly represents a step up in class. The Ravens' five victories were against teams that currently have losing records. The combined winning percentage of the four teams the Ravens have beaten, including the winless Browns twice, is .270. Meanwhile, their four losses are against teams with a combined winning percentage of .556. The only losing team in that group is the New York Jets.
A schedule that was favorable in the first half is unrelenting in the second. The Cowboys have convinced many pundits that they're the best team in the NFC, and Prescott's strong play will make long-time starter Tony Romo a spectator Sunday. The Eagles and Dolphins are far better than anyone expected, and the Patriots are still the Patriots.
The Bengals and Steelers have been disappointments so far, but both remain significant threats to turn things around in time to take the AFC North. And while a lot can change in a couple of weeks, the Ravens most tenable path to the postseason remains winning its division. With three teams in the AFC West — the Kansas Chiefs, Oakland Raiders and Denver Broncos — all sitting with seven wins already, it's going to be awfully difficult for the Ravens to make the postseason via the wild card.
The Ravens' two recent divisional wins, which followed the first four-game losing streak of the Harbaugh era, vaulted them into first place in the AFC North. But they didn't erase the team's offensive issues, which are exacerbated by the team's health problems up front.
Rookie starting left guard Alex Lewis sustained a high ankle sprain against the Browns and he'll be lost for roughly six weeks, if not the whole season. Starting right guard Marshal Yanda, the team's best offensive lineman, has missed three of the past four games with a shoulder injury that hasn't gotten better.
Both offensive linemen could go to injured reserve, a circumstance that would present another challenge for the Ravens to overcome. Harbaugh, however, believes his team has already gotten through its worst stretch, and still sits all alone in first place.
The opposition, though, will get much tougher in the weeks ahead.
"Whether we win a couple of games in five days or we lose four games in a row, which was really tough — there was nothing tougher really that we've had here in that stretch — our building doesn't crack," Harbaugh said. "… Yeah, everybody is happier. The post-game locker room was a lot more fun the last two weeks. It's a lot more fun to win. Guys enjoy that, but from work ethic, the thing that I know about our guys, our guys aren't going to all of a sudden say, 'We've arrived," by any stretch. Our guys are going to go work and know that the last one doesn't mean much if you don't win the next one. You have to stack wins to be successful. That's what we're aiming to accomplish."