Before the season began, the Baltimore Ravens were one of the top picks to reach the Super Bowl by the media. Of course, it is well known that teams don't win Super Bowls in July; that's what the season and the playoffs are for.
Every year there are four kinds of teams, two good and two bad.
The first kind of team is the bad team that was expected to be bad (Buffalo, Carolina). These guys usually don't have any talent and often have rosters laden with prominent draft busts (Aaron Maybin, No. 11 overall to Buffalo).
The second variety is the bad team that was expected to be good (Dallas, Cincinnati). This is probably the most miserable category to be in because as a fan it is fine to deal with losing, you get used to it. But not when you thought the playoffs were a done deal.
The third category is the good team that was expected to be bad (Kansas City, Oakland). These are usually very young teams that didn't so much lack talent as proven production; it's difficult to project, for instance, that Darren McFadden is going to explode after two relatively lackluster seasons.
No disrespect to these teams, but the doubts about them existed for a reason. It's very rare to see a bottom feeder jump immediately to Super Bowl contention in a one-year period.
That leaves us with only the fourth category: the good teams that were expected to be good (New Orleans, Indianapolis). These are the teams that are realistic contenders for the ultimate prize: being the last team left standing when the playoffs are over.
Barring a monumental collapse, after nine games it is pretty clear that the Baltimore Ravens belong in this category. As a team built to win in December, expect the Ravens to make the playoffs. Whether that is as a division winner or a wild card remains to be seen.
Breaking down each team in the top tier, there is no clear-cut favorite to make the big game, especially in the muddled AFC. In the NFC, it seems like it will be Atlanta and New York playing for the NFC title, but in the AFC, a large number of teams are clustered with six wins.
The Ravens, despite a loss to the Atlanta Falcons on Thursday night, still fall within that bubble of six win teams, and frankly, a loss to Atlanta on the road is easily the least damaging loss that the Ravens have suffered so far this season. There is no such thing as a good loss in the NFL, but if ever there was one, this would be it.
Breaking down the Ravens' remaining seven games, they generally fall into three categories.
In a normal year, there would also be a fourth category, "should lose".
However, because they have a road win against a good Pittsburgh team, I think it is fair to say that the Ravens are a tough out for any team in the NFL, this year. The other reason is that the Ravens are fortunate enough that their remaining difficult games are at home, and the Ravens are tough to beat at M&T Bank Stadium.
At Panthers: The easiest game left on Baltimore's schedule, without question. The Panthers have no quarterback, a lame duck head coach and their best two running backs are both fighting injuries.
While it is on the road, the Ravens will be coming off of a "mini bye" and will have had 10 days to prepare. With a much more talented and motivated squad, the Ravens should pretty much stomp John Fox's troops and improve to 7-3.
Buccaneers: Probably the easiest home game the Ravens have remaining, the Bucs are a classic tier three team.
Nobody thought they would be any good, and yet thanks to the play of second-year QB Josh Freeman, the Bucs are never out of a close game. However, the Ravens can probably outdo the Bucs in talent and are in a different class when it comes to experience. They'll also be playing at home.
Freeman won't get a chance to perform any fourth quarter heroics as the Ravens will pull away. Still, this is a dangerous team that believes in itself, so counting them out completely would be a bad idea. But my guess right now is that the Ravens improve to 8-3.
Steelers: Really, anyone who swears they know the outcome of this game should be ridiculed because regardless of record these are always classics. The Ravens got a little bit of luck when Ben Roethlisberger was suspended for the first clash between the two rivals this season at Heinz Field, and it's impossible to say which team is going to make the one clutch play to win the game.
Traditionally in this rivalry it is the home team because both Baltimore and Pittsburgh enjoy such fantastic home field advantages. Unless there is a major reason to believe in a different result (like a star QB being suspended) pick the home team. Ravens move to 9-3.
At Texans: Houston has a high-powered offense, and it's true that they could put up some serious points on Baltimore's aging defense. However, the Texans are terrible defensively, especially in the secondary, and have the 32nd ranked defense in the league.
While the Ravens aren't as good defensively as they have been in the past, they aren't scrubs.
One other detail: the Texans aren't a physical football team. I fully expect the Ravens to dominate in both trenches which is the main reason I'd be stunned if Houston won the game. Ravens move to 10-3.
Saints: A game against the defending Super Bowl champs is never to be taken lightly, especially because by the time this game rolls around the Saints will probably be hitting on all cylinders.
Maybe it's heresy, but despite the home field advantage the Ravens enjoy, I don't see the Ravens being able to keep up with a healthy Saints offense and opportunistic defense that excels at creating turnovers with Darren Sharper in the lineup. Ravens fall to 10-4.
At Browns: A rematch of Week 3, the Browns have proven that they are a competitive team this year, and while I've had this game in the "gimme" category since the schedule came out, wins against New Orleans and New England don't come easy.
The Browns move into "should win" and they have proven that they can play with the Ravens in Baltimore. Peyton Hillis is a beast—he proved it last time against Baltimore—and Cleveland has found a spark at QB with former Texas Longhorn Colt McCoy. I can't believe I'm doing this.
I maintain the Ravens should win this game, because you're supposed to beat teams that won't make the playoffs, but right now I'm calling for the upset. Ravens fall to 10-5.
Bengals: A rematch of Week 2, the Bengals will have folded by this point. There's too much ego in their locker room. Terrell Owens is getting the ball, but you have to assume that at some point tempers will flare and the Bengals will pack it in.
Marvin Lewis is probably headed elsewhere after the season is over; this will be his last game in Cincinnati. I just don't see the Bengals being that motivated. Meanwhile, Baltimore will be playing at home for a playoff spot. Ravens finish at 11-5.
I think that will probably be good enough to win the division, particularly with two wins over Pittsburgh and the head-to-head tiebreaker, so the Ravens are talking about probably a No. 3 seed in the playoffs, maybe No. 2 if they can finish up at 12-4.
If you noticed, throughout the schedule breakdown I made mention of how the Ravens defense is not what it once was, and with a minute to go in the fourth quarter a good defense should not allow an opposing offense to go 80 yards for a touchdown.
The Ravens are serviceable on defense; they have enough veteran talent to make it all go. However, Baltimore is becoming an OFFENSIVE football team. That is almost heresy in this town and Ray Lewis is still the emotional leader of the team, but guys like Joe Flacco, Ray Rice and Anquan Boldin are going to have to be the leaders of this Ravens squad because the defense just isn't what it used to be.
The Ravens can't afford to have games where the offense only scores 21 points. That just can't be the status quo, it isn't good enough. That's good enough to beat offensively challenged teams like Carolina next week; the Ravens could probably sleepwalk and still win that game.
However, against teams like Pittsburgh, New Orleans and, yes, even Cleveland, the offense needs to be pushing 30 if the Ravens expect to win. That means that when the defense makes a play, the offense has to score on a short field.
And yes, it means that on occasion the Ravens will have to make an 80 or 90 yard touchdown drive to give the defense rest.
Those of us who are old enough to remember the 2000 Ravens will always remember them as the best defense to ever play the game. Those of us who watched the Ravens play during this past decade will remember defensive greats like Ray Lewis and Ed Reed, as well as other very good defenders like Terrell Suggs and Haloti Ngata.
But the days of defenses like the 2000 Ravens are long gone. Instead we have the days of 4,000 yard passers who are a dime a dozen. As someone who grew up watching and idolizing elite defenses, it's frustrating, but it's also time to accept reality.
For the Ravens of the 2010s to have the same kind of sustained success as the Ravens of the 2000s, they'll need the defense to step up.
It's a changing of the guard—excepting Haloti Ngata, the Ravens' best young players are on the offensive side of the ball. Ray Lewis is one of the best linebackers of all time, but for both this year and for the future of the franchise, new leaders will have to emerge to lead this team to playoff success.