After coming off a much needed bye, Baltimore has a lot of questions that must be answered concerning their 3-4 record.
The impact of losing Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Anquan Boldin, Dannell Ellerbe, and Paul Kruger seems to has made its mark thus far. So have the injury issues of star running back Ray Rice. The inconsistancies of quarterback Joe Flacco haven't helped much either.
So, with that in mind, how on earth could a team with this many concerns be able to heat up and get on a winning streak, much like they did last year in the postseason? Let's take a look:
They're not playing in Denver anymore: It's clear that the season opening blowout in Denver really killed the momentum they had gained from winning the Super Bowl a year ago. Because of this, they have sorely lacked the confidence that had gotten them to the championship in the first place. This bye week gave Baltimore a chance to forget about that loss, and to get back to playing the way that they were last year. Thankfully, the second half of the season mostly consists of teams whose offenses aren't even half as good as Denver's.
Favorable stretch: The Raven's next 6 games give them a great oppurtunity to return to form. Out of those 6 teams, only Cincinnati (who they host) and Chicago (who lost their starting quarterback) have winning records. The rest (Jets, Browns, Steelers, and Vikings) are opponents who Baltimore should easily defeat. They will likely win at least five of those games and consequently be able to heat up a few weeks before playoff time.
Ray Rice will be healthy again: There's no question that the injury suffered by Rice in Week 2 was the main reason why he's been ineffective this season. However, Rice has said multiple times that he's felt better, and the bye Week gave him even more time to heal up. We all know what he's capable of when healthy, and once he gets back on track, than the offense will have the balence it needs to be consistantly potent.
Domino effect: The 3-4 record has overshadowed what has been an impressive season for Torrey Smith. While he only has one touchdown, he has caught 31 passes for 629 yards. That's over 20 yards per catch. It's safe to say that he is a legitimate number one receiver in this league, and has played at a high level despite getting a lot of defensive attention. With Ray Rice at full form, teams will be forced to pick their poison with him or Smith. This will then open things up for Joe Flacco, particularly with the play action game. When those three players are in harmony and playing on top of their game, then Baltimore is very difficult to beat.
Defensive effort: Since the season opener, Baltimore has played very solid defense. While they have not forced many turnovers, they rank in the top half of almost every key defensive category. With the exception of the Denver game, they have allowed no more than 23 points in a contest. The main force behind the unit's effectiveness? Their ability to pressure the quarterback. The Ravens have 25 sacks on the year, tied for 5th most in the NFL. Terrell Suggs, a longtime playmaker for the Ravens, and Elvis Dumervil, a key free agent signing from Denver, have accounted for over half of the team's sacks. Suggs is as good as they come as a leader and a player, and is first on the team with 8 sacks and 31 tackles on the year. Dumervil has proved to be an exceptional addition to the team, notching 5.5 sacks as well as forcing 2 fumbles. Thanks to the defense, Baltimore has stayed competetive in every game and not lost by more than 3 points since week one. The only missing ingredient on that side of the ball is turnovers- if the defense can force more, then it will be much easier for the Ravens to close out those tight games.
After taking the bye week to get healthy and confident, there's no question that the Ravens will come storming out of the gate and heat up. While it's tough to recover from a losing record mid-season, look for Baltimore to be the exception to the rule and get back into the playoffs.