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CBSSports.com Senior NFL Columnist

Identity-challenged Ravens might be closer to finding themselves


BALTIMORE -- It can be maddening trying to figure out who the Baltimore Ravens are as a team.

It's easier for a teenage boy trying to figure out girls for the first time, or for most people to make sense of the national budget.

The Ravens are the NFL's biggest riddle. Are they a power team that bloodies the opposition the way they have done against some of the league's better teams this season? Or are they the team that has lost to Tennessee, Jacksonville and Seattle on the road?

Even the Ravens' 31-24 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday is a case study in their inconsistency. They trailed by 7, led by 17 and then had to hold on for dear life as rookie Andy Dalton nearly rallied to tie in the fourth quarter.

"You guys are so up and down," I said to Ravens guard Marshall Yanda.

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"Really?" Yanda said. "I didn't notice."

He smirked. Of course he has noticed.

Who hasn't?

Even in a game they seemingly had put away early in the fourth quarter, the Ravens watched as Dalton had the Bengals with a first-and-goal at the 7 with 46 seconds left and had the crowd at M&T Stadium on the edge of their seats. Baltimore held on when Pernell McPhee sacked Dalton on fourth-and-goal from the 17 following an intentional-grounding penalty.

"At the end of the game we were holding our butts," Yanda said.

Maddening, just maddening.

Or maybe this is just the start for a team that might be ready to really take off. Despite the inconsistency, they are still atop the AFC North at 7-3. We'll know more about them Thursday night when Ravens coach John Harbaugh meets brother Jim, the 49ers' coach, in a battle of black-and-blue teams.

I get the idea that the Ravens we saw jumping out to that 17-point lead are more like the team we will see from here on out wearing black and purple.

The Ravens went back to giving the ball to running back Ray Rice on Sunday. He rushed 20 times for 104 yards. That, in turn, opened up the play-action passing.

That meant rookie Torrey Smith. He had six catches for 165 yards and a touchdown. His connection on a 38-yard touchdown catch with Joe Flacco put Baltimore up 31-14 with 14:02 left in the fourth quarter.

The Ravens have faced a lot of criticism for not featuring Rice enough, especially in the losses. Some players, such as defensive end Terrell Suggs, openly complained about it.

"I think this week we saw when it's a tough game, you see balance," Rice said. "The run sets up the pass, the pass sets up the run. Every week, I expect to be a big part of the game."

CBSSports.com Grades
Cincinnati Bengals
Cincinnati Bengals
The Bengals' offense didn't get hot until it was too late, but you have to admire QB Andy Dalton's almost-comeback. Dalton threw for 373 yards and a touchdown but three costly interceptions did Cincinnati in. Cincinnati's defense didn't live up to its billing either.
Baltimore Ravens
Baltimore Ravens
Though the Ravens' defense gave up 483 total yards, it forced three interceptions from Bengals QB Andy Dalton, which proved to be the difference in the game. The offense fed RB Ray Rice the ball and he came through as usual, rushing for 104 yards and 2 TDs.
By Jason Butt
RapidReports Correspondent

The emergence of Smith is a missing piece for a team that has badly needed it. He is the deep speed Flacco needs. Smith can flat out fly. Were it not for his being tackled by his long, braided hair on another play, one in which he was breaking into the clear, it would have been two long touchdowns.

As he walked out of the stadium, I asked Smith if he planned on cutting it.

"No," he said. "My grandma likes it."

The Ravens love him.

Veteran Anquan Boldin doesn't run well, so Smith will help open him up on the intermediate routes and back off defenses. That, in turn, will help open up Rice and the running game.

"He's done nothing but get better and better and better," Flacco said of Smith. "It's really cool to see."

The defense played Sunday without Ray Lewis for the first time since 2007. He was held out with a foot injury. When he comes back is open to debate. And he is missed in a lot of ways.

The defense made some big plays with three takeaways, including a pick by rookie Jimmy Smith that set up a 2-yard touchdown run. Even so, it's hard to celebrate when a rookie passer throws for 373 yards and nearly rallies his team from 17 down.

"It's always tough playing without your leader," safety Ed Reed said. "But like I told the guys, there's 53 leaders on this team, and the guys know it."

Linebacker Jarrett Johnson said, "It's weird. You're used to having [No.] 52 out there. Once the game gets going, you kind of forget it. Every once in a while you turn around and go, 'Ray? Oh, forget it.'"

It had to be strange seeing Lewis in sweats on the sideline acting as a coach.

"I looked down there and saw him in his sweat suit, and he's down there [in his coaching posture]," Johnson said. "But we like him better as a player."

Early last week, I wrote that the Ravens were too up and down because Harbaugh is too emotional. We discussed that after the game -- nicely, I might add -- and Harbaugh doesn't buy it.

Time will tell. Harbaugh instead wanted to point out that he has a team with a lot of young players in big roles still growing together.

Point made. But the next two weeks will show us if that has changed. The Ravens play the 49ers on Thursday and then play at Cleveland 10 days later. If they beat the 49ers, then lose to the Browns, a team they should beat, it will be the fourth time they will have followed a big victory with a loss to a team they are favored to beat.

Like Harbaugh, the idea that the Ravens are too up and down seemed to annoy Johnson.

"That's the NFL," Johnson said. "The phrase that somebody should beat this team is the stupidest phrase in football."

"Yeah, but do you know who this Ravens team is?" I asked.

"Hell, yeah," Johnson said. "What do you mean?"

"Are you the same Ravens as in the past?" I said.

"Absolutely," Johnson said. "Where you from?"

See, it can be maddening trying to figure out this team, even if you play on it.

Who are the Baltimore Ravens?

They just might be a team that is about to find itself, which might be the case. If so, the rest of the AFC better watch out.

Pete Prisco has covered the NFL for three decades, including working as a beat reporter in Jacksonville for the Jaguars. He hosted his own radio show for seven years, and is the self-anointed star of CBS Sports' show, Eye on Football. When he's not watching game tape, you can find Pete on Twitter or dreaming of an Arizona State national title in football.

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