Cue the (early) celebration for Ravens fans

After four weeks, there's reason for Ravens fans to have high hopes

October 03, 2011|Mike Preston

Go ahead, drink the Purple Kool-Aid.

Lift up those wine glasses, and toast the Ravens. After completing the first quarter of the season, the Ravens are 3-1 and in sole possession of first place in the AFC North. There are five other teams in the conference with the same record, but they aren't as good as the Ravens.

Unfortunately, the Lombardi Trophy isn't presented to the NFL champion until February, but drink while you can. Maybe in the next couple of months, the Ravens will sweeten the drink, but Ravens fans can at least enjoy the taste for another two weeks before the Houston Texans visit Baltimore.

Like Baltimore, the Texans are 3-1, but they aren't in the Ravens' class because they aren't as tested and don't have any playoff experience. New England, Buffalo, San Diego and Tennessee all have the same record as the Ravens as well, but the Ravens still get the nod here at No. 1

The Patriots have a great offense, but no defense. That eventually will be their undoing. Buffalo isn't for real, and the Bills will fall soon. The Titans beat the Ravens earlier this season, but that came in the aftermath of the Ravens beating rival Pittsburgh.

It won't happen again.

Tennessee is a new comer to one of the positions at the top, but like Houston, lack post-season and big-game experience. That leaves only San Diego. Can you say loser? West Coast teams are always soft, and Chargers' coach Norv Turner invents new ways to lose games.

Right now, Baltimore is the best team in the AFC because of balance, physical style and experience. What about Pittsburgh and the New York Jets?

Well, what about them?

Their offensive lines are atrocious, and it will be interesting to see if both Mark Sanchez and Ben Roethlisberger are still standing at the end of the season after the beatings they took Sunday.

As far as the Ravens, they've been a pleasant surprise. Because of the new additions on offense, a 2-2 start would have been reasonable. But 3-1 is extremely impressive, and you have to like where the Ravens seem headed.

They've won without injured starters Ben Grubbs, the left guard, receiver Lee Evans, cornerbacks Jimmy Smith, Domonique Foxworth and Chris Carr. By the time they play Houston here on Oct. 16th, all but Foxworth -- who's on the injured reserve -- should be ready to play.

It's hard to imagine the Ravens' defense playing any better than it did Sunday night when the group forced three turnovers for touchdowns. First year defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano has the Ravens playing with the same ruthless, pressure style that was introduced by Marvin Lewis back in the 1990's.

It's an approach that the Ravens got away from under Greg Mattison the previous two seasons, but you can tell these Ravens are happy again by the way they fly to the ball, and play with such a swagger and confidence.

Pagano attacked New York's weaknesses by throwing different looks at Jets rookie center Colin Baxter, and constantly challenging right tackle Wayne Houston.

The Ravens are getting dominating weekly performances from outside linebacker Terrell Suggs and defensive tackle Haloti Ngata, and unheralded efforts from players like linemen Terrence Cody, Cory Redding and outside linebacker Jarret Johnson. They're still getting big plays from safety Ed Reed, and they finally made a smart move by using Lewis more as a blitzing linebacker on third down passing situations instead of dropping him into coverage.

There are still questions about the offense, most obviously the consistency of fourth-year quarterback Joe Flacco. He has played two good games and two bad ones. It's great that the Ravens have deep vertical threats in Evans and rookie receiver Torrey Smith, and that they can come from behind to erase a large deficit.

But the Ravens can't build an offense around the arm of Flacco. The centerpiece has to be running back Ray Rice, who should touch the ball at least 25 to 30 times per game because he is the team's most consistent weapon.

There are other questions about the Ravens offense. Right tackle Michael Oher continues to struggle, and left tackle Bryant McKinnie still has to get into playing shape. But the return of Grubbs will improve the offensive line, and right guard Marshal Yanda showed leadership Sunday night by being very animated in getting the message across to coordinator Cam Cameron that the Ravens needed to run the ball.

The win over the Jets was a throwback to 2000 when the Ravens won with defense, and they took away any leftover desire to win with a grind-it-out running game. Times have changed, and the NFL is supposedly a pass happy league, but this is still a chemistry for success. The good news is that the Ravens have time to build, and the offense can grow.

After four weeks, it's been a good run so far. The Ravens are ahead of where most expected them to be. It's way too early to pop the champagne bottles and break out the glasses, but there's nothing wrong with sipping some of the grape stuff.

A little chilled Kool-Aid tastes good right now.

mike.preston@baltsun.com

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