It's been an up-and-down kind of first half for John Harbaugh and his Baltimore Ravens squad.
Despite their shining 5-2 record, they have been marred by injuries, an inability to stop the run and a quarterback who just can't get his game going away from M&T Bank Stadium.
While this week's bye was crucial to the Ravens getting some much needed rest (especially guys like Haloti Ngata and Ed Reed who are nursing injuries, and Terrell Suggs who is still coming back from his torn achilles), the next two weeks will be some of the most important of the season.
Well, the next two games will be against two of the bottom feeders in the AFC.
Next week, the Ravens will travel to Cleveland to take on the 2-6 Cleveland Browns, followed by a home date with the 3-4 Oakland Raiders (keep in mind that two of their wins came against the Jacksonville Jaguars sans Maurice Jones-Drew and the lowly Kansas City Chiefs).
These games will be very telling for the Ravens, their fans and pundits alike.
If the Ravens want people to believe that they are still contenders, they must show that despite their recent struggles, they can still beat both of these teams handedly.
That would restore some of the confidence that many fans have lost over the last three games.
Secondly, the game next week in Cleveland will be much more of a test than the Browns' 2-6 record may indicate.
First, it's a road game.
We know Joe Flacco seems to have a rough time playing on the road (even against bottom feeding teams, as he showed us in Kansas City on Oct. 7).
Secondly, this is a divisional matchup, which are never easy games.
Finally, the Browns may be 2-6, but just yesterday they managed to pull off the upset at home against the San Diego Chargers, by a score of 7-6.
The next week's game at home won't be nearly as telling, as it takes place at M&T Bank and the Ravens have had no trouble reeling off win after win at home.
It's still rather important, however, because should they beat Cleveland, that win would give them a 7-2 record and put the Ravens in a great position to potentially win their division and perhaps even one of the first round postseason byes.
While the next two games may not seem like marquee matchups, they are still crucial games that the Ravens absolutely must win.
For once they pass, the road ahead gets a whole lot tougher.
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