We've reached the quarter pole of the NFL season, and it's probably fair to say we still don't quite know what to make of this Ravens team.
They've pounded two of their rivals (the Pittsburgh Steelers and New York Jets), they've laid an egg against a team everyone assumed was rebuilding (Tennessee Titans) and they've dominated one of the league's worst teams (St. Louis Rams).
Joe Flacco has the lowest completion percentage in the NFL, and offensive coordinator Cam Cameron is still struggling to find the proper balance between running and throwing.
But the versatility of Ray Rice -- and a defense that includes four of the best players in the NFL in Haloti Ngata, Terrell Suggs, Ed Reed and Ray Lewis -- has set expectations high.
The Ravens (3-1) are young in several areas, but they clearly have the talent to contend for the Lombardi Trophy. It's just hard to predict how the rest of the year will play out, considering how good the Ravens look at times and how bad they look during others.
As difficult -- and foolish -- as the prediction game might be, we're going to attempt a lighthearted look at how the rest of the regular season might play out, both as a best-case and a worst-case scenario. Of course, the reality of 2011 will probably fall somewhere in the middle. But at least you'll be prepared for either extreme.
Game 5: Texans vs. Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium
Best-case scenario: We already know Andre Johnson will miss this game with an injury, which takes away the biggest advantage Houston might have had against the Ravens' shaky secondary. Free to continue with their blitz-happy ways, the Ravens shut down Arian Foster and batter Matt Schaub, forcing a pair of turnovers. In doing so, they keep the pressure off an offensive unit that's still finding its way, and Baltimore wins, 28-14, in front of a rabid crowd singing along to Seven Nation Army.
Worst-case scenario: Anticipating a series of blitzes, the Texans put Schaub in the shotgun and call a series of quick routes and quick throws. Jimmy Smith isn't healthy yet, and Ravens linebackers can't run with Foster, leading to a shootout. Flacco continues to look like a man casting a thousand-yard stare, and the Ravens are upset, 31-24.
Game 6: Ravens vs. Jaguars at EverBank Field
Best-case scenario: Ray Rice touches the ball 30 times and runs circles around Jacksonville for three quarters before getting a seat on the bench. Flacco comes to life, thanks in part to the return of Lee Evans, who catches a long touchdown pass. Haloti Ngata hits Maurice Jones-Drew so hard, Jay Cutler tweets his revenge. The Ravens cruise, 31-6.
Worst-case scenario: Rice touches the ball six times, which the Ravens later blame on food poisoning to protect Cam Cameron. Flacco throws three interceptions, which is immediately attributed to Cameron, to protect Flacco. Billy Cundiff misses three field goals, all of which are blamed on John Harbaugh. Ravens still win, 13-10.
Game 7: Cardinals vs. Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium
Best-case scenario: Terrell Suggs picks up the pace in his quest to lead the NFL in sacks, and Kevin Kolb is more than happy to curl into a fetal position midway through the third quarter to help him get there. Ben Grubbs is finally healthy and the Ravens feed the Cardinals a steady diet of Rice and Ricky Williams. Flacco hooks up with Anquan Boldin for two red-zone touchdowns. The Ravens romp, 35-14.
Worst-case scenario: Poor Cary Williams gets twisted into pretzels by Larry Fitzgerald, and the Cardinals stun the Ravens, 28-24, proving that the vaunted Baltimore defense is only as good as its pass rush.
Game 8: Ravens vs. Steelers at Heinz Field
Best-case scenario: Despite a vow to avenge a beating in Week 1, the Ravens prove the wheels really have come off in Pittsburgh. The Steelers' linebackers can't cover Rice in space, and when they try to spy the Ravens playmaker with an aging Troy Polamalu, it leaves Ed Dickson open for a huge day. Pittsburgh keeps it close, but the Ravens show that the era of the Steelers renting space inside their heads is truly over. 28-21, Ravens.
Worst-case scenario: The Steelers batter Flacco like a pinata, and a blindside hit (on the sixth consecutive pass called by Cameron) ends Flacco's day with a concussion. Hines Ward needles Ed Reed until he takes a swing at the smiling Steeler, and Pittsburgh holds on for an ugly 21-10 win. Rice finishes the day with seven carries.
Game 9: Ravens vs. Seahawks at CenturyLink Field
Best-case scenario: Flacco lets the rest of the league know his early-season slump is behind him for good when he throws four touchdown passes in a 35-6 victory on the road. Tarvaris Jackson spends most of his day just trying to stay alive. Pete Carroll spends all of halftime and much of the third quarter fantasizing about what Andrew Luck will look like in Seahawks colors.
Worst-case scenario: The night before the game, the Ravens' entire team is struck ill by a bad batch of sushi. Baltimore spends nearly three quarters sleepwalking through a rainy, mistake-filled game, and two special-teams touchdowns by Seattle and two interceptions by Flacco lead to an improbable 17-13 upset.
Game 10: Bengals vs. Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium
Best-case scenario: Still mildly annoyed at the suggestion that the Bengals' Cover-2 defense is his kryptonite, Flacco shreds Cincinnati's defense for 360 yards and three touchdown passes. Because Cedric Benson is serving a suspension, the Bengals have to rely entirely on rookie quarterback Andy Dalton, who completes just three passes. Baltimore begins a push for a first-round playoff bye with a 41-10 thrashing.
Worst-case scenario: Flacco continues to be baffled by Marvin Lewis' defense, and Benson -- who was able to return from a suspension -- runs for 130 yards and a touchdown in the 24-13 upset. Fans flood radio station phone lines to call for Cameron's job.
Game 11: 49ers vs. Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium
Best-case scenario: John Harbaugh shows he has been waiting for this game his entire life, remembering all those times he was pushed around and overlooked because of his more athletic brother. Midway through the second quarter, he has someone disconnect Cameron's headset and begins calling his own plays, giving the ball to Rice 36 times in a 28-10 win.
Worst-case scenario: Fed up with Alex Smith's inconsistent play, Jim Harbaugh makes the unprecedented decision to send Andrew Luck -- who is attending the game as a guest -- into the game wearing Smith's jersey. Luck leads the 49ers to a big 17-16 win, then heads back to Stanford on a redeye.
Game 12: Ravens vs. Browns at Cleveland Browns Stadium
Best-case scenario: The Ravens appear to be hitting their stride on defense and prove it by hitting poor Colt McCoy on approximately 75 percent of the plays, including handoffs. With a healthy Evans and Torrey Smith stretching the field, Boldin has his best day as a Raven, catching 11 balls for 175 yards. Baltimore wins a businesslike affair, 24-7.
Worst-case scenario: Peyton Hillis, still motivated by Ray Lewis' comment that "even a blind cat will find a meal every so often," rumbles over Lewis twice on his way to 130 yards. McCoy neutralizes the pass rush with a series of quick throws and we begin to fully grasp how poorly the Ravens' secondary tackles, except for Lardarius Webb. The Browns catch the Ravens sleeping and win 21-20.
Game 13: Colts vs. Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium
Best-case scenario: The Ravens pick up right where the rest of the league left off, thumping the winless Colts 42-3. Flacco drags his completion percentage above 60 percent for the first time all year, and Ricky Williams runs for 160 yards and three touchdowns.
Worst-case scenario: Flacco suffers a concussion on the first play of the game, Peyton Manning leads a halftime coup and installs himself as coach, and he helps Curtis Painter as he outduels Tyrod Taylor in an ugly 12-9 Colts win that features six first downs between the teams. Rice has nine carries.
Game 14: Ravens vs. Chargers at Qualcomm Stadium
Best-case scenario: The Ravens score three special-teams touchdowns and clinch a first-round bye with a satisfying 31-17 win. The Ravens push their record to 12-2, and Cameron contemplates buying instead of renting.
Worst-case scenario: Philip Rivers throws the ball 63 times and eventually the Ravens run out of cornerbacks as the Chargers win a 34-31 shootout. A string of inconsistent plays and a resurgent Steelers squad have the Ravens fighting for the division title again.
Game 15: Browns vs. Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium
Best-case scenario: Determined to wrap up the game quickly so he can dress up as Santa Claus at the Ravens Christmas party, Suggs sacks McCoy six times and forces three fumbles as Baltimore clinches the AFC's No. 1 seed.
Worst-case scenario: Hit by a massive snowstorm, and distracted by the holidays, the Ravens have to scratch and claw their way to a 10-7 win but lose two offensive linemen to injuries in the process. They drop a game behind Pittsburgh for the division lead.
Game 16: Ravens vs. Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium
Best-case scenario: With the top seed wrapped up, the Ravens decide to pull their starters after the first quarter. Taylor throws for 240 yards and hooks up with Tandon Doss and LaQuan Williams for a pair of touchdowns in a 31-28 win. Even Sergio Kindle surfaces, recording two sacks.
Worst-case scenario: The Ravens spend half the day scoreboard-watching instead of playing hard, hoping the Steelers will gift-wrap the division for them with a loss to the Browns. Before they realize it, A.J. Green has caught four jump balls for 179 yards and three touchdowns. The Bengals win, 21-14, and the Ravens are forced to travel to Tennessee for the first round of the playoffs.
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