They ended the first month of their second season with an ugly loss in San Diego, and they still have more to prove than any other NFL team with a winning record, but let's recognize the Ravens' September for what it was: a major step forward.
With a 3-2 record landing them in second place in the AFC Central heading into Sunday's game against the Steelers at Memorial Stadium, the Ravens seem to have joined the NFL's great, gray midsection, where everyone is a threat to go 8-8.
That might not sound like a major accomplishment, but it is for a team that won just four of 16 games last season and seemed headed in the same direction during a winless, injury-marred preseason.
Yes, the Ravens still have many holes and unresolved issues heading into October, but they're no different in that regard from any other team, including the defending champion Packers, who, ahem, also have a 3-2 record.
In a year in which the 49ers are older than mythology, the Cowboys' offense is stuck in neutral and the Packers are bumbling, success seems more possible than ever for teams without credentials.
Not that the Ravens can take any solace in that.
Their grip on a place in the NFL's land of opportunity/ mediocrity is still far more tenuous than the grips of the Packers and the 17 other teams within a game of the Ravens in the standings.
As Sunday's loss to the Chargers showed, there's no guarantee that a solid September will lead to a solid October, November and December, too.
The Ravens were so shaky on a day when they had much to gain (how would a 4-1 record and sole possession of first place sound right now?) that it's still not clear whether they're the same, old Ravens (sorry, Ted) or truly improved and deserving of playoff contention.
The next month should reveal their true mettle.
After playing the Steelers and sitting out a bye week, they'll play Jimmy Johnson's Dolphins at Memorial Stadium on Oct. 19, and then poke their way through the weekly traffic jam on the Capital Beltway to play the Redskins in the first annual Glendening Bowl on Oct. 26 at Jack Kent Cooke Stadium. (In lieu of a governor's cup, the winner will receive a percentage of the proceeds from a bond issue to be named later.)
The course of the Ravens' season should be clear by the end of those three games, all of which would appear to be winnable and/or losable.
The Steelers are still the class of the AFC Central, but not as dangerous as two years ago after multiple free agent losses.
The Dolphins are struggling at 2-2 with doubts about Dan Marino's future, but Johnson's teams are always tough and competitive.
And the Redskins? They're 3-1, but, like the Ravens, still proving themselves.
In other words, the Ravens could go 3-0, 0-3 or really earn their place in the great, gray midsection and continue to kick along around .500.
Fans should settle for the latter, if it happens.
Anything other than 0-3, really.
The Ravens just haven't played well often enough to warrant any more confidence than that.
If not for a gift from the Giants two weeks ago, they'd have the same 2-3 record they had after five games last year -- and you saw what happened from there.
And yet, there are reasons to expect more from this year's team, starting with the improved defense.
No, the defense didn't seem improved as the Chargers' Stan Humphries passed for a zillion yards Sunday, but the reality is that the Ravens have allowed fewer points per game than every AFC team except the undefeated Broncos and Patriots. That's a true story.
And that's encouraging, too, but don't expect the trend to continue unless the pass rush improves -- it was a no-show Sunday -- and the secondary wakes up. Inserting veteran Eugene Daniel for Donny Brady at cornerback should help, given Brady's inability to cover anyone for long. The Ravens might have won Sunday had Daniel started.
The offense is a better bet to improve with the return of Bam Morris, who appeared to want to prove a lot of things to a lot of people as he bulldozed for 81 yards Sunday.
The Ravens can only hope their twice-suspended back stays clean and focused for the rest of the season, because he is such a force that the offensive line seems to get pumped up to block for him. (Or was I the only one who thought the holes were bigger for Bam on Sunday?)
Morris' presence should lend balance to the offense and improve production.
Still, these are the Ravens we're talking about, the Ravens who still seem to have an almost uncanny knack for losing close games, as Sunday demonstrated.
Yes, they made big gains in September, bigger than anyone expected, but they still have much to prove before their place in the NFL's mainstream is affirmed.
They have to beat a real team, for instance, a Pittsburgh, Miami or Washington.
They have to come out of October toting something other than a four-game losing streak.
They have to demonstrate that the improvements shown in September were made of hard currency, the kind that lasts for an entire season.
Because, of course, as much as one month of .600 football is nice, it's not enough.
Pub Date: 9/30/97