CLEVELAND -- A somewhat disheveled John Harbaugh jokingly asked for a comb before addressing reporters. It seemed to be an odd request considering how the Baltimore Ravens beat the Cleveland Browns on Sunday. The 25-15 victory at Cleveland Browns Stadium was not pretty. It was the definition of winning ugly.
The Ravens aren't apologizing for their effort. It's been good enough to beat the likes of Dallas, Kansas City and Cleveland twice. And it's good enough to give them the second-best record in the AFC (a.k.a, the Average Football Conference).
But a performance like Sunday isn't going to cut it against the likes of the Texans (remember the 30-point loss last month?), Broncos or even Steelers. The Ravens hold a one-game lead over Pittsburgh (5-3), but this is a Steelers team that has won four of its past five games including a victory at the defending Super Bowl champion Giants.
The standings says the Ravens are 6-2 and atop the AFC North. The Ravens just don't feel like a 6-2 team when you watch them. They're too inconsistent on offense. They get pushed around too much on defense. They commit too many penalties, and that includes two this season on Harbaugh's self-described "enthusiasm" on the sidelines. Not even the most die-hard Ravens fan could convincingly say that team looked like one that could go far in the playoffs.
"We had lots to work on last week; we're going to have lots to work on next week," Harbaugh said. "We are going to try to become a great football team. We're not there by any stretch. We have a chance to get there if we all come together and do the things we need to get there."
This is the part that makes you scratch your head about the Ravens. They had an entire bye week to prepare for this game, and this is what they had to show for it?
After a near-perfect start -- the Ravens jumped out to a 14-0 lead in the first quarter -- their offense hit a rut. A major one. There were six straight three-and-out drives. There was the drought of 29 minutes, 43 seconds without a first down.
Joe Flacco, who completed his first 10 passes, suddenly went cold. He completed one of his next nine throws. Ray Rice, who gained 58 yards in the first quarter, managed eight yards in the second quarter and one yard in the third.
The Browns made adjustments after the first quarter to stop Baltimore. The Ravens, though, couldn't adjust against the last place team in the division.
"I think all of us were probably frustrated a little bit there," Flacco said. "We weren't able to move the ball. We weren't converting on third down. It's how well you deal with the frustration and go back out there and pick yourself back up. I always say we are tough physically, but being tough mentally is just as important."
What the Ravens should be proud of is how they finished. Baltimore was able to get the offense back in gear after the Browns took their very first lead (15-14 with 8:48 left in the game).
The key was a 21-yard pass to Anquan Boldin. It was just the spark needed for an offense that had a total of 37 yards in the second and third quarters. After a roughing the passer penalty on T.J. Ward and a couple of 10-yard runs by Rice, wide receiver Torrey Smith caught a short pass, spun away from Joe Haden and ran into the end zone for 19 yards.
It was the eighth fourth-quarter comeback of Flacco's career and his third one against the Browns.
"You're never going to complain about first place," Rice said. "It might not be pretty. It might not be what the world wants to see. But it's us and we'll take it any day. Winning is winning. I don't know how to put it winning in terms, but there is no such thing to me as a bad win."
The Ravens, though, have to keep the win in perspective. They were lucky to be playing Cleveland. The Browns helped the Ravens by failing to finish off drives in the red zone (five field goals), lining up incorrectly (an illegal formation negated a fourth-quarter touchdown) and surprisingly going for it on fourth down with 3:53 remaining. The Browns only trailed by a touchdown and had two timeouts, but Cleveland coach Pat Shurmur decided not to punt on fourth-and-two in his own territory. The result was a Weeden pass sailing high over Greg Little's head.
"I don't take any credence in winning ugly. To me, it doesn't mean anything," Harbaugh said. "Look around the league, it's a tough league. Every team has great players. This is not college football. There are no homecoming opponents. This is the NFL. There is not going to be a lot of pretty. There is really not."
Speaking of a homecoming opponent, Baltimore gets another losing team in Oakland at home next week before the schedule gets tougher. The Ravens play the Steelers twice in three weeks (with a cross-country trip out to San Diego nicely sandwiched in between) and then face the Manning brothers (Denver and the New York Giants) in December.
The Ravens know they can't play like Sunday and beat teams of that caliber, even if they're not going to publicly admit it. Baltimore managed 282 yards against the NFL's 26th-ranked defense. The Ravens watched another running back gain over 100 yards. They also were flagged nine times for 82 yards.
Harbaugh says they're trying to become a great football team. But it's November and the NFL has reached the midway point of the season. The time is now for the Ravens to start putting things together.