- Jamison Hensley, ESPN Staff Writer
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The Ravens are the best team in the AFC. No, wait, they're the worst team in the AFC.
Both statements are true depending on what game, quarter and series you're watching, which reveals how baffling and frustrating this season of mystery has been for Baltimore.
The Ravens can turn a two-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback into a turnover machine one week, but can't stop Matt Hasselbeck the next . They can drive 92 yards for the winning touchdown in the final seconds at Pittsburgh, but can't record a first down for the first 40 minutes at Jacksonville. They can punch the best teams in the NFL in the mouth, but they get knocked out by some of the worst.
Which team is going to show up Sunday against the Bengals? Will it be the one that swept the Steelers or the one that was Sleepwalking in Seattle? No one knows. Not John Harbaugh. Not Ray Lewis. And especially not the AFC North blogger who is trying to figure out the most confusing split personality disorder since "Me, Myself & Irene."
At this point, based on the Ravens' body of work for the first 10 weeks, Baltimore isn't going to win the Super Bowl. This isn't saying that the Ravens can't. Baltimore will certainly make the playoffs and could get one of the top two seeds. The Ravens are an extremely talented team. But they're also a flawed one.
To hoist up the Vince Lombardi Trophy, a team has to play great for three or four weeks in a row. Since the bye five weeks ago, Baltimore hasn't strung four strong quarters together. Inconsistency has been the downfall. The lack of championship focus could be the Ravens' undoing.
"The story of the season is going to be written at the end," Harbaugh said. "I'm not writing that story now. ... I'd like to give you an answer, but I'm not really interested, to be honest with you. It's not my job to answer that for you. Our answer is on Sunday. That's what a football team has to do. That's what our focus will be."
Harbaugh said it's not his job to provide answers, but he just did. It's focus. Even the players know it.
"We can't come out lackadaisical," free safety Ed Reed said. "You got to win these games to be one of those elite teams like we're claiming to be. If we're claiming to be that team, we got to come out and play week to week. It can't be elite one week and ‘Unnecessary Roughness' the next week. It's got to be every time."
Here are the two biggest questions coming out of losses to Tennessee, Jacksonville and Seattle:
Why do the Ravens abandon the run so early? In the Ravens' three losses, quarterback Joe Flacco has averaged 40 pass attempts while running back Ray Rice has averaged 8.6 carries. Yes, the Ravens trailed in each game, but the first-half deficits were never daunting ones. It's puzzling to see the Ravens rely so heavily on Flacco in a year where they added an All-Pro fullback and took away the top two receivers in franchise history. Many have put the blame on offensive coordinator Cam Cameron. But there comes a time when Harbaugh, who has taken a bigger role in the offense this year, has to define the identity of the offense. Consider this: Flacco has thrown 150 passes over the past three weeks, which nearly doubles Aaron Rodgers' attempts (86) over that time.
Why do the defensive playmakers disappear? The Baltimore defense has been dominant against the big boys yet docile against the lower-tier offenses. The defense can take over games, forcing seven turnovers in the season opener against Pittsburgh and scoring three touchdowns against the Jets. The defense, though, has to share in the responsibility of the losses. The Ravens have forced two turnovers in three defeats. Some say Baltimore's pass rush is negated when quarterbacks like Hasselbeck and Tarvaris Jackson get rid of the ball so quickly. Others might say the lack of turnovers is an indication of a lack of intensity for that game and opponent.
"The comparisons that people want to draw between the three games, that's all hypothetical, theoretical stuff," Harbaugh said. "When you know football, you understand the schemes that you see and the situations that you face are different in every single game. ... I'm not a psychologist."
But there is a trend with the Ravens that suggests something is skewed with their week-to-week mindset. Baltimore routed Pittsburgh to open the season and lost at Tennessee the following week. The Ravens beat up on the AFC South-leading Texans and lost at Jacksonville the following week. They finished off a sweep of the Steelers with a last-minute comeback and fell at Seattle the following week.
The Ravens' six wins have come against teams with a combined record of 31-26 (.544). Their three losses have come against teams with a combined record of 11-16 (.407).
I'm not a psychologist either, so I called one to talk about the Ravens' up-and-down season in general terms.
"This isn't to say you don't take the next opponent seriously," said Dr. Joel Fish, of the Center of Sport Psychology in Philadelphia. "There's only so much emotion in the tank. When you come off a game against the Steelers, you're literally on empty and any football fan can see both teams are on empty. We're not dealing with machines or robots. You see this a lot with rivals. You don't have time to fill the emotional tank."
Fish added, "In a game like football, which is such an emotional game and the talent level not being that different between the great teams and the have-nots, I think, yes, you can say emotionally in the NFL there are certain games that [are] trap games and certain games where teams are vulnerable for a letdown."
This hasn't been a trademark for the Ravens under Harbaugh. In the previous three seasons, Baltimore was 18-1 against teams with a losing record. This year, the Ravens have three losses against sub-.500 teams.
"We're not licking any wounds," Harbaugh said. "This is [a] bunch of pros. They work hard at it. They take pride in what they do. That was a disappointing loss [at Seattle]. But they will put it behind them."
The problem is the Ravens won't succeed this year unless they fix the mistakes from their past. It's not about beating the best teams. It's about being the best team week after week.