BALTIMORE -- The Ravens are getting hot at the right time. With the season hitting the homestretch, and the playoff picture coming into view, Baltimore (7-5) rolled to its third straight win, dropping the Detroit Lions, 44-20, at M&T Bank Stadium Dec. 3.
"Over the last three weeks, we're building toward the team that we envisioned," safety Eric Weddle said, "and we're playing well at the right time."
Here are five quick impressions about the Ravens' win:
1. The offense finally looked productive.
The Ravens threw downfield. They converted third downs. They mixed the run and the pass. They found the end zone. In short, the Ravens' offense looked as good as it has all season.
Joe Flacco wasn't perfect, especially early, but he had perhaps his best game of the season, completing 23 of 36 passes for a season-high 269 yards and two touchdowns. No throw was better than the 66-yard bomb he dropped right in Mike Wallace's hands to set up a touchdown, and equally as important, he played mistake-free again, with no interceptions for the second straight week.
Last week, Weddle said there would come a game when the offense would need to bail out the defense. The defense came through with a few big plays itself -- including an exclamation-point, interception return touchdown by Weddle for the game's final points -- but the bottom line is whenever the Lions did strike against the Ravens' defense, the offense had an answer.
2. The Ravens are better positioned to withstand season-ending injury to cornerback Jimmy Smith, but it is still a huge blow.
The Ravens drafted cornerback Marlon Humphrey in the first round and signed durable, veteran cornerback Brandon Carr with a plan to get better and deeper in the secondary. Too often in the past, an injury to Smith has left the Ravens scrambling and signing journeymen off the street.
Smith, who has been dealing with a sore Achilles all season, has been one of the best cornerbacks in the league this season. He has three of the Ravens' league-leading 20 interceptions, and teams have avoided throwing his way for long stretches. A long-term injury could cost him what should be, based on his play thus far, his first Pro Bowl appearance.
Smith has played all 16 games just twice in his career, though, and injuries have always kept him from reaching his potential. But with Humphrey, Carr, second-year slot corner Maurice Canady and others, at least the Ravens are in a much better position to be without Smith.
"It's different than before," head coach John Harbaugh said. "We have a lot of depth. We have a lot of good young players, and we'll step up."
3. The Ravens' offense is so much better when Wallace is involved.
Flacco dropped a 66-yard pass right into Wallace's hands in the second quarter -- the Ravens' longest play from scrimmage this season -- and Ben Watson caught a 1-yard touchdown on the next play. Wallace finished with five catches for 116 yards, his second 100-yard game of the season.
Against the Raiders in Week 5, Wallace had catches of 52 and 54 yards en route to the Ravens' 30-17 win. Wallace showed against the Lions that he is critical to the Ravens' downfield passing game. Every time he make a big play, it begs the question why this concept has disappeared for such long stretches this season.
"I just want to make spark plays," Wallace said. "That does so much for our team, people just don't even know. It does a lot for the fans, it does a lot for you all [media], it does a lot for us -- everybody. It's just excitement. Excitement happens when you make plays like that."
4. The defense had some issues, but big plays never seem to be far away.
The Ravens saw what Detroit's quick-strike offense can do, as Matthew Stafford led the Lions to a pair of quick third-quarter touchdowns that trimmed a 20-0 Ravens lead to 20-13 at one point. But the Ravens' defense has made big plays all season and did so again.
Early in the game, Weddle hammered Stafford, sacking him and forcing a fumble recovered by Willie Henry. That led to a 3-yard touchdown catch by converted defensive lineman Pat Ricard. Later, Weddle picked off backup quarterback Jake Rudock and returned it for a touchdown, the Ravens' fourth defensive touchdown this season. Humphrey intercepted a pass and returned it to the Lions' 31-yard line, leading to another score.
The Ravens' defense was beaten a few times, but they also made big plays, and either scored directly or gave the offense a short field. That's been something the Ravens have frequently done all season.
5. Ravens grab stronger grip on playoff berth.
The Ravens improved to 7-5, and probably need to just split their final four games to reach nine wins, which should be enough to reach the playoffs in the vanilla AFC. They figure to be favored in their final three games -- at Cleveland and then home against Indianapolis and Cincinnati. Suddenly, 10 wins seems like a possibility.
The Ravens take a three-game winning streak to Heinz Field next Sunday night to face the Pittsburgh Steelers, and even if they lose that game -- and they historically play very well there -- they would just need to win two of their remaining three games, all against teams with losing records with two of them at home, to finish 9-7.
This is no time for the Ravens to get complacent, and they surely won't. But they suddenly have given themselves a little margin for error.