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With big-game hunter sidelined, Ravens still come up big

BALTIMORE -- The Ravens were within reach of this win, in control of another victory on a big stage that would shift the momentum of the AFC North, when linebacker Ray Lewis began working the sidelines with a message for his defensive teammates.

"Hunt, hunt, hunt!" he hollered. "Don't stop huntin' until you've got them up on your wall!"

It was trademark, inspirational Lewis -- a vivid reminder of his presence. Yet for all that Lewis could do on the sidelines, he could do none of it on the field. This night, this 16-6 win over the 49ers, belonged to a defense ignited by the performances of many others.

Who could have guessed, in one of the two games Lewis was forced to miss with an injured toe, the Ravens would tie the franchise record with nine sacks in a game? But this doesn't just send a message of Baltimore's capabilities without Lewis in the lineup.

It sends a message of what it'll be like when he's back.

"Everybody thinks we're a different defense without Ray Lewis, and we are," said linebacker Terrell Suggs, speaking on the set of NFL Network's "Total Access." "But we're still a great defense. We're still a hell of a defense."

The Ravens have been a confusing bunch at times this season. They've fallen in the most frustrating ways to the most unexpected teams: the Titans in Week 2, the Jaguars in Week 7 and the Seahawks in Week 10. The collective record of those three squads is 12-18.

And yet, they've got signature wins in huge moments, like two wins against the Steelers, like last week's success against the Bengals, like this most recent one against the 49ers. All four of them came with a huge spotlight; all four wins occurred when they needed them most.

Baltimore has been a beast in big games -- even if it's been a disappointment in smaller ones. Good news: In the playoffs, there's no such thing as a small one. And that's why this Ravens team is proving, despite their inconsistencies, they will be a very dangerous team this postseason.

For all those who have hated on the Ravens for their lame letdowns, you can't discount what they've done in three of the last four weeks. And you can't discount that they've done it with their greatest communicator on the sideline.

Yes, quarterback Joe Flacco still needs to spend these final five weeks working on his consistency. Yes, the Ravens eventually need to get Lewis back in the mix, despite the accomplishments of the team in the last two weeks. Yes, they need to also keep alive momentum against some upcoming opponents who don't provide the same motivation as the Steelers or the Bengals or the 49ers.

But that's it? Those are the three concerns?

"I mean, obviously we think we could be a little better, but for how the season's gone, we feel great about it, and we've got to just continue to do it," Flacco said.

This defense is loaded with players capable of orchestrating a championship run. Lewis. Suggs. Ed Reed. Cory Redding. Haloti Ngata. Jameel McClain. They've got the tough, deep, clutch group necessary to put themselves in any game from this point forward.

If nothing else, they've shown this season that their biggest issue isn't the ability to win big games -- but rather their ability also to lose easier ones. That's obviously a problem.

But when the postseason begins, it doesn't help to have a team built with a low ceiling. It helps to have a team with an unknown one. The Ravens have yet to lose any games this year to their toughest opponents. Even with their leader on the sideline.

If there is one lesson this Ravens team needs to realize as it continues its path toward the playoffs, it might be found in the words of Lewis during the fourth quarter of Sunday's game. If they can digest those words, if they can translate them to the field, the Ravens will be one tough team to beat.

Don't stop huntin' until you've got them up on your wall.

Follow Jeff Darlington on Twitter @jeffdarlington

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