Shortly after the Ravens had beaten the Carolina Panthers on Sunday, coach John Harbaugh left the media with a statement that was confusing.
"We could have played a lot better, but we're happy with the direction we're going," he said after the 37-13 victory.
He had to be kidding, right? The Ravens might be 7-3 and at the top of the AFC North, but we're not sure about the direction. The term "status quo" might be more applicable here, but certainly not better.
It's acceptable now just to win games because of the parity in the league, but the good teams start separating themselves from the bad ones at this time of year, not just in wins and losses, but by their play on the field. After Sunday's game, you have to question whether the Ravens have had significant improvement since the beginning of the season.
If they had, the Ravens would have demolished a team like Carolina. The Panthers had won only one game. They had no fans at the game. They had one of the worst run defenses in the league, and their starting quarterback, Brian St. Pierre, was flipping burgers two weeks ago.
But the Ravens committed four turnovers and couldn't pull out the victory until St. Pierre gave them two gift-wrapped interceptions for touchdowns in the last five minutes.
Come on, man.
The Ravens should have treated the Panthers as the Pittsburgh Steelers did the Oakland Raiders on Sunday. The Raiders flew across the country with playoff aspirations, and the Steelers gave them a major beat-down. Yet the Ravens, with 10 days to prepare, struggled with the worst team in football, a team that has to put out a roster every day for the coaching staff to know its own players.
The Ravens need to develop a sense of urgency. The schedule gets a little more difficult now with home games against Tampa Bay, Pittsburgh, New Orleans and Cincinnati, and road games at Houston and Cleveland. The Ravens lack a killer instinct, the ability to finish teams off, especially in the fourth quarter. Against the Panthers, the Ravens had a 20-3 lead early in the third quarter but allowed Carolina to pull within 20-13 on an 88-yard touchdown pass from St.Pierre to David Gettis with 14:44 left.
We're seeing the same problems resurface, allowing big passing plays. The Ravens have had problems stopping the run and gave up 120 yards on 22 carries to backup running back Mike Goodson on Sunday. A possible solution to that problem is unleashing linebacker Dannell Ellerbe out of Harbaugh's doghouse. Teams are focusing on blocking down on inside linebacker Ray Lewis, and Jameel McClain, the team's other inside linebacker, hasn't stepped up, and that 250-pound body can't handle those 50 snaps per game.
Offensively, the Ravens are talented, but they don't have an identity. They aren't a running team, and they aren't a passing team. Sometimes, they're just a mess. The system the Ravens have in place is simple but not sophisticated enough for all the talent they brought in with receivers Anquan Boldin, Donte' Stallworth and T.J. Houshmandzadeh.
It's amusing at times to watch the Ravens' offense. A couple of weeks ago, they didn't get running back Willis McGahee into the game, and now they pop him in on the second series before starter Ray Rice gets warmed up. Shouldn't the starter be allowed to gain some kind of rhythm?
Near the beginning of the season, the Ravens were a work in progress. They needed time to find the balance between their running and passing games. They needed some time to work out the kinks in attempting to improve their pass rush and secondary.
As the weeks unfold, there is still hope that the team gets better. The goal is to peak going down the stretch and into the postseason. Right now, the improvements have had significant impact. For instance, the Ravens finally got something out of the return game with David Reed bringing back the opening kickoff of the second half Sunday 84 yards to the Carolina 18.
Instead of scoring a touchdown and putting the Panthers away, the Ravens gained 3 yards on three downs and settled for a field goal by Billy Cundiff.
The Ravens are a very talented football team, and they should be happy being in first place of the AFC North. But by no means should this team be content because it hasn't gotten much better. The Ravens seem to be in a holding pattern. A sense of urgency is needed soon. There is still time left for improvement, but it's not going to last much longer.
Listen to Mike Preston on the "Bruce Cunningham Show" from noon to 2 p.m. on Mondays and Fridays on 105.7 FM.