The Ravens lead the AFC North by 1.5 games. They’re tied for the conference’s best record (7-2). They’ve won four straight games, including two blowouts over division leaders.

But as his team enters a Week 10 rematch against the Cleveland Browns, coach John Harbaugh is unmoved.

“What the standings are now are not important,” he said Monday. “It’s what the standings are after the last regular-season game that matter. Our guys really understand that, I think.”

First place ain’t a bad place to be, though. At the season’s midway point, the NFL’s best team and most important player might reside in Baltimore. Here’s what Baltimore Banner reporters Jonas Shaffer and Giana Han and columnist Kyle Goon make of the Ravens’ first nine weeks, as well as what could transpire over the next nine.

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Which Ravens player, unit or coach has impressed you the most this season?

Shaffer: The easy answer here is defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald. The better answer might be the entire Ravens’ defensive coaching staff. At every level of the unit, role players have emerged as playmakers. Justin Madubuike is one of the NFL’s best interior pass rushers. Outside linebackers Jadeveon Clowney and Kyle Van Noy have turned back the clock, while Odafe Oweh has made a third-year leap. Brandon Stephens has become a reliable outside cornerback. Safety Geno Stone leads the NFL in interceptions.

Just as impressive, there’s been almost no regression with the Ravens’ defensive core. Roquan Smith and Patrick Queen are one of the NFL’s best linebacker duos. Marlon Humphrey looks like a shutdown cornerback once more. And safety Kyle Hamilton continues to show that there’s little on the field he can’t do well.

Han: When I arrived, the story seemed to be all about how many injuries there were in the secondary. Yeah, Geno Stone had one nice pick in one of the early season games, but one interception doesn’t feel all that encouraging when a unit is missing so many impact players.

Or at least that’s what everyone thought.

Interceptions have indeed told the tale of Stone’s season thus far, and his emergence has been a microcosm of the secondary’s performance overall. They’ve gotten Marlon Humphrey back, but they’re still not completely healthy, yet they’re playing like they’re at full strength and then some. While it’s true they’ve faced some backup quarterbacks, they’ve also faced some hot teams like the Lions and the Seahawks, and their results are still strong. The unit has impressed me, but shoutout to the defensive coaches, as well, for having everyone truly living in that “next man up” mentality.

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Goon: While it should not be surprising, it’s necessary to point out how strong Lamar Jackson’s season has been thus far. There was a ton of scrutiny on the Ravens signal-caller after signing his huge contract, but he’s met or exceeded virtually every expectation: He’s throwing more often at a career-high efficiency, and even though he has fewer running attempts, the threat of his scrambles still holds the same power over defenders who freeze with indecision. Fumbling has been an issue, but interceptions have not. The offense has withstood numerous injuries, thanks in large part to Jackson’s consistency. It turns out there was a lot left to unlock for the 2019 MVP, and he is well on the way to winning the award again.

What’s the Ravens’ most interesting X-factor over the season’s second half?

Baltimore Ravens wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. (3) runs with the ball during the first quarter against the Seattle Seahawks at M&T Bank Stadium on Sunday, Nov. 5, 2023. (Kylie Cooper/The Baltimore Banner)

Shaffer: That brutal schedule. It’s the second hardest in the NFL, as measured by DVOA, and includes just one game against a team that currently has a losing record. If the Ravens win the AFC North or claim the AFC’s No. 1 seed, they’ll certainly have earned it over the season’s final month, with road games against the Jacksonville Jaguars and San Francisco 49ers, followed by home games against the Miami Dolphins and Pittsburgh Steelers. If the Ravens’ current form holds, they might be favorites every week. That doesn’t mean any games are gimmes.

Han: Odell Beckham Jr. is both an interesting character and interesting variable. He was brought to the team for both his on- and off-the-field contributions. The second is hard to measure when we don’t see him in meetings or hear how he is with his teammates on the sideline. But the first has been limited thus far. In and out with injury, he just hasn’t had all that many impressive plays — and the stats reflect as much. But on Sunday, he finally caught his first touchdown as a Raven. Maybe that will unlock the OBJ of old. If so, that could be huge for the Ravens, who have not had a wide receiver emerge as a complement to tight end Mark Andrews. At first, it seemed like it would be Zay Flowers, but he had just one catch last week. There is enough for everyone to eat, but another established go-to could really help unlock this offense.

Goon: Coming into the season, we couldn’t stop wondering about who would step up in the pass rush. It turns out we couldn’t have imagined who would star because a bunch of them weren’t even with the team yet: Journeymen Jadeveon Clowney and Kyle Van Noy have been just as important as Odafe Oweh and Justin Madubuike for the NFL leaders in team sacks (35). While the unit has been a key to the team’s success, I still question if it can be sustainably great. The Ravens will need to generate pressure on increasingly talented passers, like a healthy Joe Burrow, Justin Herbert, Trevor Lawrence and Tua Tagovailoa. David Ojabo and Tyus Bowser are still sidelined with extremely vague timelines to return. After the trade deadline, I questioned if leaving that unit as-is was the right approach. Over the second half of the season, we’ll find out if Eric DeCosta’s decision was correct.

What’s the next step for Lamar Jackson, Todd Monken and this offense? How high are your second-half expectations?

Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson (8) runs with the ball during the first quarter against the Detroit Lions at M&T Bank Stadium on Sunday, Oct. 22, 2023.
Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson (8) runs with the ball during the first quarter against the Detroit Lions at M&T Bank Stadium on Sunday, Oct. 22, 2023. (Kylie Cooper/The Baltimore Banner)

Shaffer: Keeping the ground game in gear, and getting more explosive passing plays. They’re related, too. If the Ravens can ravage a run defense as sound as Seattle’s, they should get plenty of favorable looks downfield, especially off play-action. Jackson is just 5-for-19 on passes of at least 20 air yards since Week 5, according to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats, but just two of the receivers he targeted were considered “open.” Short and intermediate throws are this offense’s bread and butter. At some point, though, the Ravens will need to threaten defenses vertically.

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As for expectations, we’re in uncharted territory here. Jackson has hit the season’s halfway point as an MVP candidate before, only for things to go sideways. After that magical 2019 season, Greg Roman seemed to have fewer and fewer late-season answers. This is Monken’s offense now, however. How will he respond when temperatures dip and the Ravens’ tendencies become more pronounced? Monken has the skill position talent and the offensive line to keep Jackson on track. But the Ravens need more than just competency to win games that really matter.

Han: The next step isn’t something new or innovative. It’s something we’ve talked about plenty: consistency. Yes, the Ravens have strung together four wins in a row now. Two of those featured strong offensive performances. But they didn’t come back-to-back. And, even more concerning, the worst performance in the last three games came against the worst defense. The Ravens won’t be able to afford this back-and-forth from their offense as they fight to stay on top of the AFC through this upcoming gauntlet.

My expectations are tentatively high. I was incredibly impressed by their performance Sunday. It gave me a glimpse of this team’s potential; that team could take on anyone in this league. But as I said above, the consistency just hasn’t been there, which means I’m on edge for another clunker of a game.

Goon: We’ve arrived at the juncture we do every year, no matter who is helming the offense: How do the receivers get more involved? The run game is once again dominant, and a healthy Keaton Mitchell gives the Ravens yet another kind of threat as a speedy home-run hitter. But there still isn’t a great output from Rashod Bateman, Odell Beckham Jr. and Nelson Agholor, in spite of the price tag that the Ravens paid out to the position. Zay Flowers and Mark Andrews are both at nearly 500 yards, but it’s clear the Ravens need a third reliable option to emerge from the rest of the group.

My expectations for how high they can go are relatively modest: Right now, the Ravens are 20th in passing yards (1,878) and 22nd in passing TDs (10). With the direction Monken is taking things, I would expect them to finish in the top half of the NFL in both stats as Jackson and his receivers get on the same page. Sunday’s win showed signs of that starting to happen.

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Which is a bigger hurdle in the Ravens’ race for the AFC’s No. 1 seed: the AFC North, or the conference’s other top teams?

CINCINNATI, OHIO - SEPTEMBER 17: The line of scrimmage of the Baltimore Ravens game against the Cincinnati Bengals at Paycor Stadium on Sept. 17, 2023 in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Shaffer: The Big Bad Wolf is still in Kansas City. The Chiefs are tied with the Ravens atop the AFC, but they’re favored to end up with the conference’s top seed and home-field advantage, according to The New York Times’ playoff projections, largely because of an easier schedule. After a Super Bowl rematch against the Eagles in Week 11, the hardest game on Kansas City’s schedule might be a Week 17 home game against the Cincinnati Bengals. And a loss to Philadelphia might not prove too costly, either; the Chiefs have a leg up on the Ravens by virtue of their superior record in conference play.

The AFC North is a gauntlet, no doubt. But the Ravens should win at least two of their three remaining divisional games. The Cleveland Browns’ offense is still a mess. Kenny Pickett is still the Steelers’ quarterback. And for as hyped as next week’s game against the resurgent Bengals might be, it’ll be played in Baltimore. The Ravens’ Week 15 trip to Jacksonville, another two-loss team, might be a tougher test.

Han: The Ravens’ biggest hurdle is beating themselves. But since that’s not one of the multiple-choice options, I’ll go with the AFC North. Although other divisions feature some really good teams, the AFC North is consistently near the top. If the playoffs started today, every AFC North team would make it. The Ravens must face two of the other top-four teams, the Jaguars and the Dolphins, but both have played some pretty ugly games recently that make me believe they’re entirely beatable. Besides, AFC North games are always gritty battles where it feels like anything can happen.

Goon: Underestimate the AFC North at your own risk. It feels like folks have already forgotten that the Ravens impressively steamrolled the Bengals in Cincinnati; at the same time, we’ve seen how good that team can be once Joe Burrow and his receivers are on the warpath. The Browns haven’t figured it out, yet they’ve also beaten really impressive teams like the 49ers. Mike Tomlin tap dances his way out of losing seasons every damn year; we don’t yet possess the scientific tools to understand how he does it. Like Jonas, I agree that the Ravens will finish at least 2-1 in their remaining AFC North games, especially since all of them are at home. But the difficulty of this conference is you can’t stumble once, lest the competition catch you. The Bengals are by far the most believable of the conference contenders, but should the Ravens mess up like they did against the Colts or the Steelers, any one of the teams below them in the standings could opportunistically pounce.

Prediction time! Where will the Ravens finish in the AFC North and in the conference?

Baltimore Ravens linebacker Odafe Oweh (99) and defensive tackle Justin Madubuike (92) celebrate a sack during the second quarter against the Seattle Seahawks at M&T Bank Stadium on Sunday, Nov. 5, 2023. (Kylie Cooper/The Baltimore Banner)

Shaffer: I think the Ravens finish 12-5 overall and 4-2 in the division, a game behind the Chiefs and just ahead of the Bengals. Would it surprise me if the Ravens won out? Of course not. We all know what’s possible when an in-form Jackson and a top-tier defense combine forces. But division games don’t often bow to logic, and the 49ers and Dolphins have two of the NFL’s most talented rosters. With a few untimely injuries, the Ravens could be vulnerable.

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Han: This truly makes me nervous, especially since I’m still feeling the burn from my predictions for the Colts and the Steelers games. But I think they finish at the top of the North and second in the conference. I put the Chiefs ahead of them because outside a Super Bowl rematch against the Eagles, it feels like the rest of the Chiefs’ schedule is winnable. Also, I think the Ravens could win out, but I don’t think they will. It feels like it’s inevitable that they will drop at least one due to their inconsistent execution and weekly fumbles.

Goon: Might as well go big: Yes, the Ravens wind up with the first seed, finishing 14-3. The Christmas game in San Francisco and three more games against the AFC North are gauntlets, as are tests against Jacksonville and Miami. But Baltimore has been tremendous at rising to the level of their competition this season, and demolished the best teams they’ve faced. Kansas City’s schedule looks just as fraught, with Philadelphia, Buffalo and the Bengals as tough remaining opponents, and Patrick Mahomes might honestly be willing to trade his receivers for Baltimore’s at the current output. The Ravens might cough up one of the tough games or maybe even one as they prepare to rest starters for the playoffs, but Baltimore has been the most consistent AFC team of the bunch so far, and their two losses could have easily been wins. Now that they have replicated a few of these impressive blowouts, the top seed feels like theirs to lose.

jonas.shaffer@thebaltimorebanner.com

giana.han@thebaltimorebanner.com

kyle.goon@thebaltimorebanner.com

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