The Baltimore Ravens, at least for a half, looked Monday night like the team most of us expect them to be.
For 30 minutes, it was a performance befitting of a team suited to handle the task at hand, which was winning a game it was supposed to win.
A loss in Houston would have been catastrophic to the Ravens’ playoff hopes. A misstep against the Texans would have opened the door for San Diego and Indianapolis, two teams still fighting for their respective divisions but mindful of their position in relation to the two wild card slots.
Currently the AFC’s fifth seed by virtue of a head-to-head tiebreaker over the Jets, Baltimore kept pace with 10-3 Pittsburgh and sustained hope for a home game in the playoffs' first round.
The Ravens may not overtake the Steelers for the AFC North and an opening-round game at M&T Bank Stadium, but they will make the playoffs. If Baltimore can take care of New Orleans at home on Sunday, Cleveland and Cincinnati, which handed the Ravens a loss in Week 2, should provide some cushion heading into January.
What will happen after they get there is the question. And that’s anybody’s guess.
Baltimore is as good as it wants to be. No longer a beleaguered team that has to use defense as a crutch to support an ailing offense, the Ravens can beat teams in multiple ways.
That much was evident Monday night. But what was also clear was that this team’s most glaring weakness may be playing with a lead, which doesn’t exactly feel like Super Bowl material.
And this has every bit to do with the offense—specifically, the running game—as it does the defense. The defensive meltdown was troubling, but for a unit that’s allowed the second-fewest points in the AFC, let’s call it an isolated incident.
Plus, there won’t be any quarterbacks in the playoffs slinging the ball 62 times like Houston’s Matt Schaub, particularly in the sub-zero temperatures of a New England or Pittsburgh.
For the Ravens to be able to make a run deep into January, they can’t run the ball the way they have for much of the season, and certainly not in the manner they did against the Texans.
Up 28-7 following David Reed’s 103-yard kickoff return to begin the second half, the Ravens needed only play ball-control offense, picking up a first down here and there to move the sticks and wind the clock.
Excluding Reed’s return, the Ravens had four possessions in the second half Monday night. They gained 71 yards on 17 plays. No drive lasted longer than 4:30 and more than seven plays.
It was time for the running game, which is pedestrian at No. 21 in the league at 104.9 yards per game, to finish the Texans. On Baltimore’s final three drives, running back Ray Rice carried eight times for 18 yards, almost mirroring his season as a whole.
Rice, Baltimore’s leading rusher, has run for 898 yards this season. But his production has been an accumulation of games in which he gained between 60 and 85 yards. Despite receiving 15 or more carries in a game 10 times, Rice has eclipsed the 100-yard mark just once this season.
That won’t cut it in the playoffs. Not at home or on the road, which, all things considered, is where the Ravens will be playing for as long as their postseason run lasts. It won’t cut it in the cold weather and isn’t conducive to the methodical scoring drives that so often characterize playoff football.
The line needs more push. Rice needs to make good on his carries, although more wouldn’t hurt. If both of these happen, that’s when Flacco can start in with the aerial attack.
That’s when Baltimore, with a defense that will be just fine, is truly dangerous.
The mission now is playing like it for 60 minutes.