Ravens at an early crossroads

Posted by ESPN.com’s James Walker

It’s trick-or-treat time for the Baltimore Ravens.

Their first six games have seen a little bit of everything. Baltimore was considered by many pundits to be the best team in the NFL after its 3-0 start. But currently the Ravens are on a three-game losing streak and have rapidly fallen to the middle of the pack.

The Ravens clearly have the talent to play with anyone. But their streaky nature has many wondering if Baltimore is that dominant team of September or the struggling team of October.

"We’re both," Ravens center and six-time Pro Bowler Matt Birk said. "That’s who we are. We’re 3-3, that’s a fact. Another fact is there is more season ahead of us than there is behind us. And I think one thing is, all good teams get better as the season goes on."

With midseason approaching, Sunday’s game against the undefeated Denver Broncos (6-0) will say a lot about where the 2009 Ravens are heading.

A victory over one of the NFL’s elite would instantly put the Ravens back in contention. But a loss would extend Baltimore’s losing streak to four games, and although not impossible, teams that lose four in a row during a season struggle mightily to get into the playoffs.

"There’s a little more urgency to it because we’re all aware that we need to get a win," Ravens tight end Todd Heap said this week. "That’s our main focus this week, is going in and getting one win. That’s our only goal."

This has to feel like deja vu for the Ravens.

Baltimore was 3-3 at the same point in 2008, the first season under coach John Harbaugh. But things clicked for the Ravens as they won eight of their final 10 games to earn the final wild-card spot in the AFC. Entering the postseason as a hot team, Baltimore won two playoff games before losing to the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC title game.

With a stacked roster and a much-improved offense, there is reason to believe the Ravens can get hot again. But there are some differences between last year’s run and this season.

For starters, the AFC North is a three-team race this year. The Ravens took advantage of the Cincinnati Bengals and Cleveland Browns last season by sweeping those four games. This year the Bengals (5-2) are tied for first place with Pittsburgh (5-2), and neither team has shown signs of slowing. Cincinnati already has a win over the Ravens in Baltimore, and the teams will meet again Nov. 8 in Paul Brown Stadium.

Secondly, Baltimore’s defense has seen a major drop-off in the first six games. The Ravens, who finished No. 2 in total defense in 2008, are ranked No. 19. Baltimore’s pass defense has been particularly porous and is ranked No. 23 in the NFL.

But Baltimore had two weeks to correct its issues during the bye. Losses to the Bengals, New England Patriots (5-2) and Minnesota Vikings (6-1) have been very close, in which a blown coverage, dropped pass or missed kick could have made the difference.

"Most of our games have come down to the end," Birk said. "Some of them we finished and some of them we haven’t. Good teams finish."

Denver also is coming off a bye week and has played as well as any team through the first six weeks. The Broncos’ defense is allowing a league-low 11 points per game.

Baltimore will try to do to the Broncos what the Patriots, Bengals and Dallas Cowboys (4-2) could not. The Broncos defeated all of those teams and showed the mental and physical toughness under first-year coach Josh McDaniels that has made them an early Super Bowl contender, setting the table for this huge matchup in Baltimore.

"It doesn’t get any better for football," Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis said of this statement game. "There are a couple teams left undefeated. I’m OK with not being undefeated, because I want to do some other things. Those guys are in a great position right now. All we have to do is just go play football. The bottom line is the Broncos are playing very sound football right now. They have a reason to be undefeated."