BALTIMORE -- This wasn't the Miami Dolphins. It wasn't the Cincinnati Bengals for that matter, either. This was another Baltimore Ravens win over another team with legitimate championship dreams, and so it's finally time to say what's become quite obvious: There is no better team playing football in the NFL right now.
It was shocking enough that the Ravens dominated the Houston Texans during a 41-7 win at M&T Bank Stadium. What was even more startling was the reality that Baltimore is elevating to an entirely different level as the race for postseason positioning intensifies. We already knew the Ravens had a spectacular offense led by quarterback Lamar Jackson. Now the Baltimore defense has started to look more like the trademark stifling units that served as the foundation for this franchise's two Super Bowl wins.
The Ravens were plenty scary when teams only had to figure out how to slow down Jackson. Give them a squad where every unit, including special teams, performs at a high level, and it's hard to think any opponent can contain this bunch at the moment.
"Any time you're 8-2, you've got a special group of guys," said Ravens running back Mark Ingram. "And I think we really have a special group of guys. Guys who understand each other. Guys who believe in each other. Guys who want to fight for each other. Guys who understand the value of preparation one day at a time. We have a goal of being champions, so we don't have time to rest."
There is no denying the sense of urgency in the Ravens these days. They compete as if their season is on the line each week. They play with a combination of enthusiasm and conviction, a sense that they've got to prove their value every time they step on the field. It's the kind of vibe you normally see from pro teams once January rolls around, which means head coach John Harbaugh already has tapped into something pretty special in this squad.
This is a team that has thumped the Seahawks in Seattle and stomped the previously undefeated New England Patriots on national television. The Texans came into this contest as arguably the third-best team in the AFC -- one that had an extra week to prep because of a bye -- and they left town on Sunday with a 34-point defeat. Even the skeptics who want to say the Ravens have fattened up on bottom-dwellers like the Dolphins and Bengals can't doubt the squad they crushed today. Kansas City is the only true contender to beat Baltimore this year, and the Ravens only lost that game by five points on the road.
The point here is that this squad is no longer a fun little story about Lamar Jackson and his transformation into a superstar quarterback. It's about a team that is building the chemistry, the confidence and the cohesiveness that tends to define championship squads.
"The defense was locked in all day," said Ravens outside linebacker Matt Judon. "I think we had one terrible drive, where we missed some tackles and some alignments. But [the Texans' offense is] on scholarship, too. They made their plays, as well. But when the offense is clicking, that's on them. When the defense is clicking, we have to have [our] offense's back. And that's what we did today."
Judon was the defensive star of this game -- he led the Ravens with seven tackles, four QB hits, two sacks, three tackles for a loss and a forced fumble -- but there was plenty of credit to go around to his teammates. The Baltimore pass rush harassed Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson all afternoon while amassing seven sacks. The Ravens' pass coverage was so effective that Watson threw for just 169 yards all day. At one point, after desperately trying to escape pressure and lofting a pass that Baltimore middle linebacker John Bynes intercepted, Watson just sat on the ground with a frustrated look that suggested this simply wasn't going to be his day.
This was the type of effort the Ravens had been waiting to get from their defense. The major knock on this team earlier this season was that Baltimore had lost its infamous edge on that side of the football, as the Ravens surrendered 1,033 yards and 73 points in consecutive losses to the Chiefs and Cleveland Browns. Some of those issues revolved around key departures from a unit that ranked second in the NFL in points allowed last season (including Pro Bowl-caliber players like C.J. Mosley, Eric Weddle and Terrell Suggs). The majority of the problem could be traced to this year's squad needing to discover its own strengths.
Judon clearly can be a one-man wrecking crew when he plays at the level he did on Sunday. The arrival of Marcus Peters through a midseason trade and the return of Jimmy Smith from injury gives the Ravens two more playmaking cornerbacks in a secondary that already had a talented cover man in Marlon Humphrey and a six-time Pro Bowl safety in Earl Thomas III. This really is a group that would make Hall of Famers like Ray Lewis and Ed Reed smile. Over their last four games, the Ravens have beaten Russell Wilson, Tom Brady and now Watson.
When the Baltimore offense does what it did to the Texans -- Jackson threw four touchdown passes and the Ravens rushed for 263 yards -- that defense looks even better. When asked what has happened to this defense over the last six games, Ravens defensive tackle Brandon Williams said, "From that moment on (a 40-25 loss to the Browns on Sept. 29), we knew we had to refocus. It's about us. We needed to stop worrying about everything else and just concentrate on what we do well. And that's what we've done."
The important thing to remember about the Ravens is that this is usually the time when they raise their game. There were reports at this point last season that Harbaugh's job was on the line, right until Baltimore won six of their last seven games and claimed the AFC North title. The Ravens currently are riding a six-game winning streak after sitting at 2-2 in September. In fact, no coach has a better record in November since 2008 than Harbaugh (35-13).
That means the rest of the AFC better buckle up.
"As the stakes get bigger, your focus has to be narrower," Harbaugh said. "We have to keep it nice and tight, and keep it locked on what we have to get done one day at a time. I'm very confident these guys will do that. They understand that. I know they understand that."
The rest of the football world also understands that any championship dreams will involve dealing with Baltimore at some point. They started this season with a lot of brash talk about revolutionizing football with their unique offense. They proved Jackson is a force of nature who might very well be named the league's Most Valuable Player when this season ends. Now their defense is doing what it normally does at this time of year, which is batter opponents and take over games.
That doesn't mean the Ravens won't face more tests. They have to play the Rams in Los Angeles next Monday night and then the 49ers and the Bills (in Buffalo) follow after that. It does mean that it's foolish to bet against Baltimore right now. This is the best team in the NFL today, one that clearly looks like it's about to get even better.