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OWINGS MILLS — Midway through the season, an inviting view from atop the AFC North mountain beckons to the Baltimore Ravens.
Firmly in control of a division where their competitors are unraveling like cheap suits, the Ravens (6-2) have established an unprecedented mark in franchise history and are determined to escape the folly of complacency despite a two-game edge over the Cincinnati Bengals (4-4) following Sundayâ€™s 26-20 victory. Not to mention the lowly state of affairs with the defending Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers (2-6) and Cleveland Browns (2-6).
Only a year ago at this point, though, the Ravens were 2-6 in route to a 6-10 campaign that nearly cost coach Brian Billick his job.
Now, the Ravens constantly remind themselves of just how dramatically their outlook has changed along with the myriad of obvious flaws on an team that has lost two games by a total of a dozen points.
â€œLesson learned, going 6-10 is no fun,â€ kicker Matt Stover said. â€œA lot of times you have to hit the valley before you can climb the mountain, and weâ€™re climbing the mountain right now.
â€œWeâ€™re looking up, but more than anything, you canâ€™t become complacent. Youâ€™ve got to continue to work.â€
Beginning this week against the Tennessee Titans (2-6), Baltimore will play four games against 2-6 teams, including two remaining games against the Steelers and one against the Browns. The Ravens conclude the season at home against Cleveland, at Pittsburgh and at home against Buffalo (3-5).
â€œI canâ€™t imagine this team falling into that trap in terms of thinking they have the right to think of themselves in a different way going into any game,â€ Billick said. â€œThey seem very focused. I donâ€™t have to work very hard on the mantra: â€˜One game at a time.â€™ You canâ€™t get caught up in whatâ€™s ahead other than just win the next game.â€
Maintaining concentration is perhaps easier to do because the Ravens still have several unresolved issues on both sides of the football.
Two games removed from Billick firing offensive coordinator Jim Fassel and installing himself as the play-caller, the Ravens have scored 61 points. However, scoring in the red zone remains problematic. The Ravens went 1 for 5 inside the Bengalsâ€™ 20-yard line as Stover booted four field goals.
Baltimore ranks 24th in the NFL in red-zone efficiency as it has converted just 12 of 26 opportunities for a 46.2 percentage. That situation was largely ascribed by Billick toward a sputtering running game averaging just 104.0 yards per contest. Former Pro Bowl runner Jamal Lewis averaged three yards per carry for 72 yards on 24 attempts against Cincinnati.
â€œWe did a great job of pushing ourselves down into the red zone, and that comes back to needing to run the ball better in the red zone,â€ Billick said. â€œWe ran the ball OK, but if youâ€™re going to be really good in the red zone, we need to run the ball better than we did.â€
Meanwhile, the secondary continues to surrender big plays and ranks 13thoverall against the pass.
Despite intercepting Carson Palmer twice with one returned for a touchdown by Ed Reed, Reed allowed a 26-yard touchdown pass to T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Chris Henry caught a 71-yard reception behind cornerback Chris McAlister and McAlister was flagged for pass interference.
â€œThat is a concern,â€ Billick said. â€œWe made a concerted effort, â€˜Letâ€™s make them go the length of the field, letâ€™s not give up that singular big play. Weâ€™ve got to be better at it and continue to work at it.
â€œSo far, the last two games in particular, it hasnâ€™t cost us. Thatâ€™s the ultimate criteria. That doesnâ€™t mean we donâ€™t critique it and say, â€˜Geez, we left ourselves vulnerable.â€™â€
With Cincinnati having lost two games in a row and four of its past five and the Steelers on a three-game skid, the Ravens are the lone division team heading in a positive direction. A traditionally strong defense that ranks third in the NFL has returned three interceptions for touchdowns over the past two weeks and leads the NFL with 17 interceptions.
â€œThe work that needs to be done is going from good to great," middle linebacker Ray Lewis said. â€œWe still have a lot of young guys. Like I try to tell them, greatness is not one big thing being done, it’s a lot of small things done well.
â€œWe are on that verge from going from good to great. As a defense and as a team, that’s what we have to keep putting together, a lot of small things."
Even if the Ravens donâ€™t match their torrid pace in the second half, they could still conceivably win the division title and claim a corresponding automatic playoff berth. Even going 4-4 would ensure a 10-6 mark.
If that transpired, the Bengals would have to go 7-1 to top Baltimore while traversing a much more demanding schedule that includes games against the San Diego Chargers (6-2), New Orleans Saints (6-2), Indianapolis Colts (8-0) and Denver Broncos (6-2) along with Baltimore on Nov. 30 at home.
Billick doesnâ€™t sound inclined to study the standings and ramifications to derive an accurate blueprint to make the playoffs.
"Whether you’re on the negative side of it or the plus side, you can’t get drawn into it," Billick said. "The formula that it would take for us to be overtaken is pretty compelling, but it means nothing because it all could happen — one way or another. We were on the flip side of this last year, kind of saying the same thing."
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times in Westminster, Maryland