Ray Rice brings down Reggie Nelson, who returned an interception… (Baltimore Sun photo by Kenneth…)
This is the classic conundrum that confronts the Ravens: half-full or half-empty?
Does a four-game win streak connote momentum for the playoffs, where they'll have to win three straight games on the road to reach the Super Bowl?
Or does this recurring cycle of Jekyl-Hyde performances suggest the Ravens inevitably will come up short on the wild-card path?
They are questions waiting to be answered in Kansas City on Sunday, when a 12-4 Baltimore team takes on the resurgent 10-6 Chiefs in the wild-card round.
But the bigger question, after a lethargic 13-7 win over the depleted Cincinnati Bengals, is this: Is this Ravens team — with its unique personality and penchant for playing tight games — capable of pulling it together for a three-game run to a Super Bowl in Texas?
Ray Rice, the Ravens' relentless running back, didn't blink.
"We are," he said. "Why? Because I think we control our own destiny. There are days when we're lights out. … You've seen how we look when we play our best game."
Indeed, the Ravens are masterful when they can run and pass out of their three-receiver sets and when the defense can beat a path to the quarterback. But what they have been this season is mostly resilient, working through the ebb and flow of a season while still trying to find their "A" game.
Half-full or half-empty is an easy question for Rice.
"The thing that's scary about us," he said, "is even when we don't play our best game, we find ways to win. So can you just envision the Ravens' best football?"
And if they played their best, who could stop them?
"Nobody," Rice said. "I'm not saying that to be arrogant or cocky, but if we play our best football, can't nobody stop us. We can only stop ourselves."
It almost happened Sunday, when the Bengals went 1-for-4 in the red zone and threw away five turnovers. The Ravens' offense converted just 2 of 11 third downs and allowed Joe Flacco to be sacked four times.
But the beauty of the playoffs is that every team gets a clean slate, if not exactly the same opportunity. Baltimore's opportunity as a fifth seed, for instance, is not nearly as good as the New England Patriots' as the AFC's first seed. But the Jekyl-Hyde part of them says they still have that opportunity.
"I like this team … [because] we find a way to win games," said center Matt Birk, a veteran of 13 NFL seasons. "We don't [always] play our best offensively or in other phases, but we find ways to win. That's exciting. I've been on teams where there is a formula for winning, and if it doesn't go that way, then we don't win. But this team can win in a lot of different ways.
"This team has been able to do that a lot this year. With that being said, moving forward it doesn't mean anything. All that's in the past. If we'd have scored 600 points this year, it wouldn't have mattered going forward."
Three straight road games isn't daunting to the Ravens' Ray Lewis, who took the wild-card route in 2000 when the Ravens pulled out their only Super Bowl appearance.
"I think one reason it doesn't matter for us is because our defense travels well," Lewis said. "We play extremely well on the road, as well as home. Our track record says we'll play anybody at any time anywhere. Any time you can pack up a great defense like that and take it on the road, you have a chance to win."
Half full or half empty?
Coach John Harbaugh wasn't offering any apologies after another inconsistent performance took the Ravens to their own 2-yard line before they finally subdued the Bengals.
"I'm proud of our guys," he said. "I think we have, over time, figured out how to win football games, tight football games. We've been in a bunch of them, that's for sure."
Now the games get tighter, more meaningful, and more intense.
"It's a totally new season," Birk said. "A one-game season. And it's the best team on game day that wins. Obviously we'd like to play better today, but we didn't. So we'll just go back to work like we always do."