The Baltimore Ravens enter their bye week with a record of 5-2, good for the second-best record in their conference. This puts them on pace for an AFC North title and a realistic shot at representing a weaker-than-usual AFC in the Super Bowl.
Yet the mood around the team doesn't feel like that right now. Part of that has to do with the Ravens latest effort, which was a 43-13 loss to the only AFC team with a better record, the Houston Texans. This was the kind of loss that is extremely deflating and can seriously derail a team's playoff chances if it's taken the wrong way.
The loss to the Texans exposed problems. Some were more unfamiliar, like a vulnerable secondary and a run defense that seems to have trouble stopping anyone. Some, though, were all too familiar, like questionable offensive play-calling and a quarterback who plays like a shell of himself on the road.
Even with all the problems that the Ravens have, they are still a team with Super Bowl aspirations. Their talent is still very elite, even with a defense that will not have Lardarius Webb and Ray Lewis for the rest of the season. They also have valuable postseason experience that would make them a dangerous team, even if they sneak in as a wild card.
Here are some obstacles that, if not addressed, will likely be what prevent the Ravens from winning the Super Bowl this year.
Ever since their schedule was released back in April, the Ravens knew that they would have a difficult road to the playoffs in 2012. According to 2011 records, their schedule ranked as the fourth most difficult one in the league.
Of course, that has changed through seven weeks of the 2012 season with surprising teams, both good and bad. The Ravens have already played the Houston Texans and the New England Patriots, the only other teams in the AFC that have winning records.
Yet there are more difficult teams coming on the schedule.
The Denver Broncos and the San Diego Chargers both sit at .500, meaning that they are right in the thick of the AFC playoff chase. This game is even more worrying when considering the success that Philip Rivers and Peyton Manning have enjoyed against the Ravens in the past.
Division games are always hard, and the Ravens still need to play two of them against the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Steelers are 1.5 games behind the Ravens at 3-3, and they have the look of a team starting to find their groove. The Ravens play the Steelers twice in three weeks, and these two games will most likely be what determines the division.
There's also a mid-December date against the New York Giants at M&T Bank Stadium.
Finally, the Ravens close out the season at the Cincinnati Bengals, a place that they tend to struggle at.
With such a difficult schedule on deck, including four games against Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks, the Ravens have their work cut out for them.
They have also played four home games thus far, meaning five of their remaining nine games are on the road. The Ravens will need to find a way to play better on the road if they are going to the playoffs for a fifth straight season.
Haloti Ngata is one of the best defensive linemen in the league, and he's off to a good start in 2012. The same cannot be said, though, for any of his other teammates, as the defensive line is proving to be a weakness that is bringing the Ravens down in 2012.
They are basically getting manhandled by opposing offensive linemen, which helps their running backs to easily find running lanes.
Like the rest of defense, the big defensive linemen are also not helped by the fact that the Ravens defense spends the most time on the field. They've taken a league-high 407 snaps in seven games.
Again, besides Ngata, the Ravens defensive linemen are also making very little impact on the team's pass rush. The only other defensive lineman to have recorded a sack this season is Pernell McPhee, with a measly half-sack. Hopefully, the returning Terrell Suggs can help to increase the Ravens sack input.
Meanwhile, with both Ma'ake Kemoeatu and Terrence Cody disappointing at nose tackle, it's possible that both players could see the bench soon. The same could also go for McPhee and Arthur Jones at the defensive-end position.
John Harbaugh has indicated that the team could look at using Bryan Hall and DeAngelo Tyson as different options along the defensive line. With the way that these linemen have been playing, this seems like a good idea. Something different clearly needs to be done for this positional group to have success.
The successful teams in the NFL are often the teams that can stay the healthiest. Injuries are an inevitable part of the game, though, and teams can only hope that they will be lucky enough to avoid them.
But that's hard to do, and many times, teams will be simply overrun by injuries. It seems that's what happened to the Ravens, as they had three defensive superstars suffer injuries in one game.
Haloti Ngata is still playing, thankfully, since he has recovered from his shoulder injury. Both Ray Lewis and Lardarius Webb were not so fortunate, though, as they are out for the season, leaving tremendous voids in their respective positions.
Lewis is the heart of the team, so even though he's an older player who appears to have lost a step, it's a tremendous loss not having him on the field. Lewis can still captain from the sideline and provide inspiration for the team, but it's just not the same as him being on the field. His designated-return status on the IR brings hope that we haven't seen the last of Lewis in 2012, but there's still a lot that needs to happen for him to come back.
Webb, however, is definitely done for the season. He is without a doubt the team's best corner and was even on pace for a likely Pro Bowl season, making this a devastating loss for the team.
Add in some minor injuries to Bernard Pollard and Ed Reed, and you've got a pretty banged-up defense. Either these players will need to stay healthy, or the Ravens will need to find backups that will step up in their stead.
Regardless, the injury problem is one that bears watching for the Ravens as the season goes on.
For all his talk about being an elite quarterback, Joe Flacco sure has trouble backing it up. Particularly when it comes to playing on the road, where he is clearly less comfortable than he is in Baltimore.
At home, Flacco averages 317.8 passing yards per game with a 106.6 quarterback rating. On the road, Flacco averages 186.7 passing yards per game with a 55.9 quarterback rating. Those are night-and-day type differences that show Flacco has serious consistency issues.
Elite quarterbacks can have bad games every once in a while. They can't have them nearly as frequently as Flacco has them, though, which seems to basically be every time that he plays on the road.
One interesting adjustment that the Ravens could look at is potentially slowing down the no-huddle offense that the team has been using frequently in 2012. At home, the no-huddle seems pretty lethal and effective, but on the road, it can rush the offense into making mistakes.
With the defense also taking so many snaps, it could be wise for the Ravens to try to sustain longer drives and get their beat-up defensive stars some time off the field. The offense can do this by (surprise!) utilizing their Pro Bowl running back in Ray Rice and giving him more carries.
Both Flacco and Rice are crucial to the team's offensive success. As quarterback, Flacco has a ton of responsibility, and it would really benefit him if the team were to use Rice in a way that would alleviate some of that responsibility.
As mentioned before, the Ravens secondary is dealing with some serious injury concerns. Lardarius Webb is gone, while both starting safeties are playing hurt, albeit with minor injuries.
Still, as long as they can stay on the field, Bernard Pollard and Ed Reed should help to strengthen the pass defense. The main concerns should be at cornerback, where Jimmy Smith and Cary Williams are listed as the starters.
Even before the Webb injury, Williams was getting burned on an alarmingly frequent basis. He's turning into much of a feast-or-famine-type player; he has three interceptions on the year, but he's also been repeatedly burned in multiple games this season.
It's gotten so bad that many times opposing quarterbacks are simply targeting the receiver covered by Williams. This trend was perhaps at its worst over the last two weeks with both Dez Bryant and Andre Johnson finding ways to frequently burn Williams.
Smith isn't that much better, though. He's young and inexperienced, with an ugly tendency to bite on double moves. In the Houston game, he was burned by Kevin Walter on several plays, including the Texans' first offensive touchdown for the day.
It may be unrealistic to expect these two players to suddenly become great, but they can certainly improve their level of play. Smith needs to not bite on double moves, while Williams needs to adjust to being the team's top corner and not get burned so frequently.