When an NFL season is over, there is a game or a stretch of them that usually defines it. The Ravens are about to enter one of those periods.
Four of their next five games are on the road. That includes three straight, and that streak begins Sunday night at Heinz Field against the Pittsburgh Steelers, followed by away games against the Cleveland Browns and Tennessee Titans.
The Ravens then host the New Orleans Saints on Oct. 21 before playing on the road again against the Carolina Panthers.
Of course no one with the Ravens wants to talk about the upcoming games because that would go against that old saying of “playing one game at a time.”
But it’s nearly impossible not to look ahead because if the Ravens can win three of those games and enter the midseason at 5-3, they would be in pretty good shape to make the playoffs for the first time in four years because five of their last eight are at home, where the Ravens are tough to beat.
But here is the rub: In the previous three seasons the Ravens have won only eight road games. They’ve played only one this season, losing to the Cincinnati Bengals by 11 points in a game they slow-walked through for the first two quarters.
That’s been a major problem for the Ravens on the road. They come out lethargicly and fall behind early. Even when they catch up, they can’t hold a lead for numerous reasons that include failing to convert on a key third down, missing a key tackle or lacking playmakers on both sides of the ball.
The hope is that has changed. During the offseason, the Ravens (2-1) brought in several new playmakers on offense, including wide receivers John Brown, Michael Crabtree and Willie Snead IV to complement one of the best defenses in the NFL.
It’s only three games into the season, but the Ravens should be getting a sniff of a possible postseason berth. The traditional favorites, such as the New England Patriots and Pittsburgh, are struggling. The Steelers are terrible on defense, and the Patriots lost to the Detroit Lions on Sunday night.
The Ravens’ victory over the Denver Broncos on Sunday was big because they dominated in nearly every phase of the game. If they had lost, the Ravens would have been classified again as mediocre. Now, they will be taken seriously, along with the Jacksonville Jaguars, Kansas City Chiefs and even the Cincinnati Bengals.
But those expectations and that confidence will fade if the Ravens lose big on the road. It’s a challenge because they will be losing days of rest for travel and they will be playing in front of noisy crowds in different environments. There are other minor complications, such as being away from family and sleeping in different quarters. It doesn’t sound like much, but humans are creatures of habit. We like being in our comfort zone.
Plus, winning will be made more difficult because the Steelers (0-1-1) are desperate for wins and can’t afford to fall even further behind the Ravens. Cleveland (1-1-1) appears to have found its new quarterback savior in rookie Baker Mayfield.
Tennessee beat the Ravens, 23-20, last year in Nashville, and few opposing coaches know the Ravens better than defensive coordinator Dean Pees, who spent the previous five seasons in the same position in Baltimore. The Ravens then get the Saints’ Drew Brees here before meeting Carolina’s Cam Newton, which means the team has to face franchise-caliber quarterbacks, including Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger, in three of the five weeks.
But there is a bright side. The Steelers are still without Le’Veon Bell, one of the best running backs in the NFL. Mayfield is a rookie, which should work in the Ravens’ favor, and the Ravens know Pees as well as he knows them. New Orleans plays very little defense, and no one knows which Panthers team will show up from week to week.
Of the Ravens’ eight road victories during the past three years, two have come against Cleveland and one versus Pittsburgh, so there is no intimidation factor in those cities. Last year the Ravens were 4-4 in away games, winning in Green Bay, Cincinnati, Cleveland and Oakland.
Overall, the Ravens have gradually improved, going from 5-11 in 2015 to 8-8 in 2016 to 9-7 last year. In the past two seasons they were a play or two away late in the season from going to the playoffs.
This team is better than the previous two. It has dominated two opponents, Buffalo and Denver, and has done it without injured starters Jimmy Smith, the team’s best cornerback, tight end Hayden Hurst and defensive end-tackle Willie Henry.
Quarterback Joe Flacco is the healthiest he has been in the past two seasons, and the Ravens have scored 12 touchdowns on 12 trips inside the red zone. They still have some weaknesses, such as lacking muscle in the middle of the offensive line and not getting a consistent pass rush.
But this is a team with potential and upside. The future, though, is about to start soon, and it needs to start by winning on the road.