Since dominating their season opener, the Baltimore Ravens haven't made anything seem easy.
Despite possessing the AFC's second-best record, Baltimore heads into the season's second half stressing improvement prior to Sunday's home matchup with the Oakland Raiders, who will be without their top two running backs.
The Ravens (6-2) cruised to a 44-13 victory over Cincinnati in Week 1, but the only blowout they've since experienced was a 43-13 defeat at Houston on Oct. 21.
Baltimore suffered a one-point loss to Philadelphia on Sept. 16 before victories by margins of one, seven, three and two points, respectively. The Ravens then followed the Texans loss with a bye week and returned last Sunday to win 25-15 at Cleveland, but they trailed the last-place Browns deep into the fourth quarter.
"We need to be better," coach John Harbaugh said. "We need to be better on third down. We need to run the ball more consistently. We need to protect our quarterback more consistently. We need to throw and catch better. And that's just on the offensive side."
Defensively, the Ravens are giving up an average of 386.3 yards to rank 26th in the NFL - uncharacteristic for a historically successful unit - and they've lost Ray Lewis (torn triceps) and Lardarius Webb (torn ACL) for the season.
The running game picked up last week with Ray Rice gaining 98 of the team's season-high 137 rushing yards. Baltimore totaled 141 in its previous two games combined.
"We've never been fancy and pretty, but we find ourselves on top most of the time," Rice said. "That's Ravens football. Our wins are not pretty, but when you are 6-2, there's no complaining about it."
While the Ravens ran the ball 37 times last week, Joe Flacco set season lows with 153 passing yards and 24 attempts. Since the start of last season, Baltimore is 18-0 when it has at least 22 rushing attempts and 0-6 when it doesn't.
"We need to be able to run the ball. That's kind of our identity," Harbaugh said. "We want to be a physical football team, (but) the truth is, it's going to take different things in different games to win."
Running the ball may be especially difficult for Oakland, which will be missing Darren McFadden and backup Mike Goodson.
Both are dealing with high ankle sprains suffered in last week's 42-32 loss to Tampa Bay, as the Raiders (3-5) totaled a season-worst 22 yards on the ground.
McFadden and Goodson haven't practiced all week and were ruled out Friday, but the Raiders chose not to sign another running back. Little-used third-stringer Taiwan Jones or fullback Marcel Reece will get the bulk of the carries after splitting reps in practice this week.
"It's really a next-man-up philosophy and we're going to have to count on some guys to step up potentially and fill a bigger role," coach Dennis Allen said.
With both running backs getting hurt last Sunday, Carson Palmer completed 39 of his career-high 61 attempts for 414 yards and four touchdowns. However, he also tossed three interceptions to mark his fourth straight game with at least one.
The former Bengals signal-caller, though, is 9-4 lifetime against the Ravens.
"I don't fear any quarterbacks, but I'm always worried when I play Carson Palmer," Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs said. "... I'm very aware of the talent. I know he can make every throw. If you ask me, he's very highly underrated. He's definitely one of the premier quarterbacks in the league."
The Raiders certainly don't have a premier defense, yielding 28.6 points per game to tie for 28th in the league. Their 11 sacks are ahead of only Jacksonville (eight).
Oakland's run defense was ripped apart last week, letting rookie Doug Martin rush for 251 yards and four TDs. Its 10 rushing touchdowns allowed are third-most in the NFL.
"We have got to learn from those mistakes and we have to be able to get it corrected," Allen said.
That may be tough for the Raiders without their top interior defender. Seven-time Pro Bowl tackle Richard Seymour has been ruled out due to a lingering hamstring injury.
Baltimore ran for 240 yards and three touchdowns in a 21-13 victory over Oakland in the teams' most recent matchup Jan 3, 2010. Rice has rushed 22 times for 134 yards in two career games against the Raiders.
The Ravens have won three straight and six of seven all-time meetings, including the AFC championship game in their Super Bowl-winning season of 2000.
The Associated Press News Service
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