1. The Ravens look like one of the best teams in the NFL.
This game struck me as sneakily interesting test for this year’s Ravens. Few expected them to lose to a Falcons team that has struggled badly on the road. But if the Ravens let up after an absurdly easy win in Tampa Bay, Atlanta had the offensive weapons to give them an uncomfortable week.
Instead, the Ravens jumped on Matt Ryan early with a vicious pass rush and enough offense to build a lead the Falcons never really threatened.
With nine penalties and three turnovers, the Ravens hardly produced their cleanest outing of the season. Joe Flacco took four hits after going untouched the previous week, in part because rookie tackle James Hurst continued his pattern of following strong games with weak ones.
Missteps aside, the Ravens handled their business, winning by 20 or more points for the fourth time this season. Remember folks, they did that exactly once in 2013.
You’ll rarely hear a football coach talk about the importance of blowouts. But the analytics movement has taught us that great teams aren’t defined by winning close games. They’re defined by winning big.
I started to get really intrigued by how far the Ravens might go when they laid a 38-10 beating on Carolina in Week 4. The margin suggested a dimension that simply wasn’t there last season. With every comfortable win against a lesser opponent, I become a little more convinced we’re watching a team that could make a deep postseason run.
2. If the Ravens continue to rush the passer like this, they’ll be very hard to deal with.
After underachieving early in the season, the Ravens’ three-headed monster of Terrell Suggs, Elvis Dumervil and Pernell McPhee has dominated for two straight weeks, with nine sacks and numerous other quarterback hits.
This time, Dumervil, Suggs and McPhee did it against a Falcons offensive line that came in as one of the league’s 10 best pass protecting units.
With the Falcons threatening to tie the game late in the first quarter, McPhee made a slick move around the center of the Atlanta line and stripped Matt Ryan. The play was a blow from which the Falcons never quite recovered.
“A guy who’s that size, [with] that quickness, to be able to go inside, outside. I mean, he’s a special player,” Dumervil said of his buddy, McPhee. “I’ve never been around a guy like that before.”
The rush is essential not only for the big plays it creates but for the protection it offers a vulnerable Ravens secondary. Because Ryan faced such steady pressure, he had to settle for quick throws instead of regularly looking downfield to Roddy White or Julio Jones.
The remaining question, of course, is whether the Ravens’ front seven can maintain their production late in the season. Dumervil and Suggs, both veterans, struggled to reach quarterbacks late in 2013. We’ll see if McPhee’s emergence as a young star will mitigate any fatigue from the older pair.
The Ravens could easily have figured they’d be set at tight end, between a healthy Pitta and a draft pick spent on the position. Instead, they added Daniels, a former Pro Bowl selection and a guy who learned Gary Kubiak’s offense inside and out during his long tenure in Houston.
That extra bit of fortifying has paid enormous dividends, especially since Pitta went down for the season with another gut-wrenching hip injury.
Daniels caught another six passes against the Falcons, including a touchdown in heavy traffic. He was Flacco’s key target throughout the team’s second scoring drive.
He might not be quite as great a downfield threat as peak Pitta, but he’s absolutely reliable and has been one of the 10 best tight ends in the league so far.
“We didn’t expect him maybe to be this much in the forefront, and yet he has handled it tremendously well,” said coach John Harbaugh. “He has had a great season. He blocks, he makes great catches. Just can’t say enough about Owen.”
The front office deserves credit for taking the extra step to make sure Flacco’s cupboard of targets would never be as barren in 2014 as it was in 2013.
4. We might be watching the most balanced team in Ravens history.
That’s a big statement to make for a consistently successful franchise. But if you think about the best teams in Ravens history, most have had to overcome at least one significant flaw.
The 2000 and 2006 teams featured terrifying defenses and solid running games but didn’t scare anyone with their passing attacks. The 2012 Super Bowl team went on a phenomenal offensive run in the playoffs, but that hid an old, vulnerable defense. The 2011 AFC finalist Ravens brought perhaps the best mix of great defense and above-average offense.
But think about this year’s team. Joe Flacco has been one of the league’s 10 best quarterbacks, aided by the most dangerous pair of downfield receivers the Ravens have ever started. The passing offense plays off one of the league’s most efficient running attacks. The offensive line has played well, no matter who’s starting.
On defense, the Ravens limit the run effectively and have begun to terrorize quarterbacks. Jimmy Smith is a top-notch cover corner and his running mate, Lardarius Webb, appears on the mend.
Justin Tucker ranks among the league’s best kickers and Jacoby Jones among its fastest returners.
Look, it’s very early to say all this, and I might sound like a foolhardy optimist in a few weeks. But it’s at least possible to look at what we’ve seen through seven weeks and imagine a team that’s above average or better in every phase of the game.
For a town used to more one-sided juggernauts, that would be pretty cool.
5. The balance of power in the AFC North has shifted toward Baltimore.
After three weeks, the Cincinnati Bengals stood 3-0, with a road win against the Ravens in hand and an apparent head start to winning their second straight division title.
My, how quickly narratives flip in the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately NFL.
The Bengals, sans all-world receiver A.J. Green, looked helpless this week in a 27-0 thrashing at the hands of the Indianapolis Colts. That followed a 37-37 tie against the same Carolina team the Ravens hammered and a 43-17 blowout loss to the New England Patriots.
The Ravens have to feel they’re stalking a wounded rival as they prepare for their trip to Cincinnati next weekend. They have found their legs on offense and in the pass rush, at the same time the Bengals seem unable to stop anyone or protect quarterback Andy Dalton.
If the Ravens can keep those trends going, they’d hand Cincinnati a difficult 2 ½- game deficit in the AFC North.
That might be jumping the gun. Maybe Green will come back from his toe injury next week, and maybe the Bengals will look like the formidable opponent of Week 1.
If you’re a Ravens fan, however, it’s awfully hard not to get excited about the potential implications of a win this Sunday.