2007 was a lousy year to be a Baltimore Ravens fan. We watched Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts come into our house and leave with a playoff victory in January. We watched as the team fell apart in November and December of the following season, and our record dropped to an abysmal 5-11, including a nightmarish loss to a previous winless MiamiDolphins squad. We watched as Brian Billick was fired and Baltimore was left to rebuild. Ozzie Newsome and Co. had a lot of work to do to restore and replenish the team.
Enter John Harbaugh. Enter Joe Flacco. Enter Ray Rice. Since the beginning of the 2008 season, the Ravens have been one of the better teams in the league, despite centering their offense on a rookie QB who, to this day, is still learning to improve his play. Over this time the Ravens have built up a capable passing attack, maintained a solid ground game, and brought in key defensive players to keep the team in close games. It has been an unprecedented success.
However, despite playoff appearances in each of the last three seasons the team has met its shortcomings. In each playoff run, the Ravens have fallen short against either the Pittsburgh Steelers or the Colts. Their combined regular season and postseason record against these two teams is 2-9 (.182) since 2008. Even those two wins were against a Steelers team missing it's starting QB and primary weapon, Ben Roethlisberger. If the Ravens plan on reaching, and possibly winning, another Superbowl trophy in the near future, these are the teams they will need to learn to defeat.
Here are some stats for you:
Since Flacco and Harbaugh took over in Baltimore (not including yesterday's game), the Ravens are 36-19 (.655) including their playoff games. If you take out the losses to the Steelers and the Colts, the record becomes 34-10 (.773), or roughly 12.36 wins per season. Against every other team, the Ravens have played extremely well and won the vast majority of their games.
The Ravens have been ridiculously successful against teams they are expected to beat. If you use an opponent's final yearly record as a guide, you learn that the Ravens have played to a 23-1 (.958) record against teams with either a losing or even record. The only loss came last year when the Cincinnati Bengals defeated the Ravens in week 2 in route to a 4-12 seasonal finsh. If you instead consider the opponent's record at the time they played against Baltimore, the Ravens are 22-3 (IND/2008/2-2, PIT/2009/7-7, CIN/2010/0-1). That's a winning percentage of 88%.
As as for the better opponents in the league, the Raven's success has been more mixed. Still including playoff games, the Ravens have a 11-18 (.379) stat line against teams with year-end records above .500. As for opponents with winning records at game-time, Baltimore is 14-16 (.467). However, if the Steelers and Colts games are removed from the equation, these numbers improve to 9-9 (.500) and 12-9 (.571) respectively. That may not look like an overpowering performance, but anytime a team can come out of matchups with quality teams and claim wins in at least half of them, that team should be counted among the elite of the league.
At this point you are probably thinking "that's all fine, but you just can't remove your two toughest opponents and claim you're a good team". You'd be right to say this. However, as the title expresses, this article is about 2011, not 2008-2010. We've seen a trend over the Flacco/Harbaugh era for the Ravens to beat inferior teams. The team plays eleven games this season against teams with .500-or-worse records last year (CIN, CIN, CLE, CLE, JAC, HOU, TEN, SEA, ARI, SF, STL). While it is possible that many of those teams will have a different look and could improve over last season, only three of those eleven teams showed an improvement from 2009 to 2010. Only the Jacksonville Jaguars (Luke McCown or Blaine Gabbert?), St. Louis Rams (Sam Bradford, Steven Jackson, and Danny Amendola hurt), and Seattle Seahawks (Tavaras Jackson? Really?) have any sort of existing trend line for improvement. We will have to see how these teams evolve over the year, but I like our chances in all of these games.
When it comes to the "good teams", the teams that win more than they lose, the Ravens only face the New York Jets, Colts, San Diego Chargers, and Steelers twice. Even if you predict the Raven's usual split among winning non-Steeler, non-Colt teams, that's only one loss. The Colts are essentially an afterthought at this point considering the injury to Manning which will likely keep him on the sidelines all season. The Colts have been an obstacle for the Ravens recently, but it appears this year they will likely get a pass. The most difficult roadblock in previous years, the Steelers, are the only thing left to consider, and this is where things are starting to look very, very pretty.
Not only have the Ravens already earned one win from this set, they utterly dominated the Steelers on Sunday. This wasn't a normal game in this rivalry where one or two plays makes the difference. The Ravens showed something that had not been seen by either team in the last three seasons: an ability to flat-out outperform the other team. Whether it was due to game-planning, better opportunities, or simply superior talent, the Steelers had no answer for what the Ravens were doing. Even if the Steelers are more prepared, healthier, and more motivated in the next meeting, it is clear that the Ravens have the necessary tools to counter what Pittsburgh throws at them. This is as important a psychological factor as it is a physical one. Just knowing that it can be done, and having a blueprint to winning against the Steelers will likely have a huge impact on future games in the series.
With the two most significant obstacles hurled out of the Raven's way this season, it is easy to say the only thing between the team and the Superbowl is injuries, a factor which can cripple the best of teams (as we already see with the Colts). This would not be true, as there are also fifteen more regular season games, and several playoff games between here and there as well. Nonetheless, I see no reason at all why the team cannot finish at least 13-3 (that would be a disappointment, honestly) and be a favorite to take the Lombardi trophy as a high playoff seed. Eleven other playoff teams would argue otherwise, and they likely will include familiar foes like the Patriots, Jets, and Steelers. If the Ravens don't start looking too far ahead, I think the team will find they are capable of almost anything. I hope to enjoy the ride as a fan. We've been building up to great things since 2007, and this year could be the best yet.