Ravens looking like a contender

HOUSTON -- Once easily dismissible as an overly optimistic outlook, any conversation casting the Baltimore Ravens as serious playoff contenders now carries an air of legitimacy. They've earned that distinction with three victories in a row at the midway point of the season heading into today's kickoff against the Houston Texans at Reliant Stadium.

It's a postponed game rescheduled due to the wrath of Hurricane Ike that struck Texas' Gulf Coast two months ago.

If the regular season concluded today, the Ravens (5-3) would be involved in the playoffs as a wild-card team by virtue of a superior conference record.

"We control our own destiny as far as whether we're going to make the playoffs," cornerback Fabian Washington said. "We don't need any help, and we're not looking for anybody's help. We want to earn it the old-fashioned way: by winning, winning and winning some more."

As one of the six AFC teams with a winning mark, the Ravens could solidify their postseason prospects significantly by taking care of business against the Texans (3-5). It's a task that will require containing Texans star wide receiver Andre Johnson and the NFL's fourth-ranked offense.

Likewise, it won't be an easy path for Baltimore to travel to still be playing football in January.

The Ravens have the toughest remaining schedule of any of the six AFC teams with winning records. Their final eight opponents have a combined record of 36-31, a .537 winning percentage.

The Ravens have already matched last year's victory total under former coach Brian Billick and are one game behind the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC North division race. However, they have yet to defeat a team with a winning record.

Their three losses are against the Tennessee Titans (8-0), the Indianapolis Colts (4-4) and the Steelers (6-2).

When asked if it meant anything to him that the Ravens have already matched last year's win total, Ravens first-year coach John Harbaugh downplayed that accomplishment.

"No, it doesn't," he said. "It means we're in the hunt. I think our football team has put themselves in contention in November. We've got to play well enough in November to be in contention in December. That's our job right now. That's all we're looking at.

"Are we excited to be in the hunt? Yeah. But that's all we are: in the hunt. To look at it from any kind of a deeper perspective, we think, is kind of a waste of time."

One year removed from a 5-11 record that include a franchise-record nine-game losing streak that cost Billick his job, the Ravens are likely eyeing a scenario where they would need to win four or five of their remaining games to make the playoffs.

Baltimore has four remaining home games at M&T Bank Stadium, where it's 3-1 so far this season. However, the second half schedule include upcoming games against the Philadelphia Eagles (5-3), Washington Redskins (6-3) and Steelers (6-2).

Plus, the Ravens fifth road game in a six-week span is next week against the defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants (7-1).

"When you look at the teams that win on the road, they're good teams," Harbaugh said. "If you want to prove you are a good team, you got to win on the road."

The Ravens are trying to win three consecutive road games for the first time since the 2001 season when they unsuccessfully defended their Super Bowl title. It was the last year Baltimore has won a playoff game, though.

After going 1-7 on the road last year under Billick and 16-33 from 2002 to 2007, the Ravens are 2-2 with Harbaugh.

"It could be the coach, it could be the coach," linebacker Terrell Suggs said in a comment that amounted to simultaneous praise of Harbaugh and a backhanded swipe at Billick. "He does a good job the night before the game to get us mentally prepared. I think it's the atmosphere around the building, and he's got everybody ready to play."

A year ago, Baltimore was 4-4 halfway through the season only to collapse and win just one game in the remainder of the schedule.

This team seems more balanced and prepared for the long haul with emerging rookie quarterback Joe Flacco, a bullish running game and an improving, young offensive line as well as a vaunted defense that ranks second in the NFL.

Roadwork isn't as grueling as task for Baltimroe as it was a year ago.

What does it all mean?

"That we're focused," wide receiver Derrick Mason said. "That we're determined as a team to stick together regardless of what the situation is. It's easy in this league to win at home.

"For whatever reason, it's hard to win on the road. Anytime you can go into anybody's home and beat them, then it's good. I think it speaks volumes up this point what we've been able to do on the road."

The Ravens have won their past three games by a combined margin of 93-50 to reverse a three-game losing streak following a 2-0 start. During that span, Flacco has completed 46 of 76 passes for 620 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions for a 104.1 passer rating.

Prior to the Ravens' second game of the season originally scheduled against Houston only to be postponed by the league because of a Category-3 storm, there was considerable scrutiny about how Flacco would fare in his first road contest.

Now, the first-round draft pick has a lot more experience under his belt with eight starts. His growing confidence reflects the state of a franchise engineering a turnaround.

"We're definitely a little bit of a different team," Flacco said. "We're more experienced and we're ready to go. We're ready to get down there in Houston and show them what we are."


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