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Ravens future looking bright despite cloud of Ray Rice controversy

Joe Flacco and the Ravens offense ran over the Panthers Sunday. (Patrick Semansky/AP Photo)

BALTIMORE — Baltimore Ravens Coach John Harbaugh called it his team’s football “cocoon” a few weeks ago.

Even with the Ray Rice controversy swirling all around them, the team’s players and coaches are able to hunker down in a sheltered environment and focus on their football-centric routine of readying for games and then playing them, Harbaugh explained.

That existence is serving the Ravens well on the field. They won their third straight game Sunday, making things look easy in a 38-10 triumph over the Carolina Panthers here at M&T Bank Stadium and staying on the heels of the unbeaten Cincinnati Bengals in the AFC North. The Bengals, who were idle Sunday on their bye week, are 3-0, a half-game ahead of the 3-1 Ravens.

“To step up like they [his players] did in a really important game at home, a game we needed to win, about to head on the road — we’re gonna be road warriors here for a while — that becomes a really important game to win,” Harbaugh said.

The Ravens lost their season opener to the Bengals here on Sept. 7. The next day the Rice controversy exploded to a new level with the TMZ-released video of Rice striking his now-wife Janay Palmer inside an Atlantic City hotel elevator.

The NFL hasn’t been the same since. The Ravens released Rice later that day and the league, which initially had suspended Rice for only two games, suspended him indefinitely. The weeks that have followed have included accusations and denials, investigations, meetings and calls for NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to resign. Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti held a lengthy news conference last Monday in which he denied many of the major allegations made in a lengthy ESPN report which said there was “a pattern of misinformation and misdirection employed by the Ravens and the NFL since that February night.”

But that was off the field. On the field, the Ravens haven’t lost a game since.

They beat the Pittsburgh Steelers by 20 points at home in a Thursday night game three days after Rice was released. They won at Cleveland on a field goal as time expired two days after the ESPN report. They beat the Panthers here Sunday, six days after Bisciotti’s news conference.

“We get paid to play,” running back Justin Forsett said in the Ravens’ locker room following Sunday’s victory. “Everything else is just noise. We focus in on the task at hand and we go there. Our job is to play and we go try to get [wins]. That’s what we try to do.”

Forsett ran for 66 yards and a touchdown Sunday. Quarterback Joe Flacco completed 22 of 31 passes for 327 yards and three touchdowns. Two of the touchdowns went to veteran wide receiver Steve Smith, one on a tipped pass and one on a throw by Flacco after he picked up a fumbled snap, in Smith’s first game against his former team.

It was the best sign yet that Baltimore’s newly redesigned offense under Gary Kubiak was starting to come together. The Panthers hit Flacco just twice, and registered no sacks. The Ravens converted on 10 of 13 first downs and didn’t turn the ball over once against one of the NFL’s top defenses from 2013, a unit that entered this Sunday’s game in the top 10 in points-allowed-per-game.

Things get tougher for the Ravens from here. They play at Indianapolis next Sunday to begin a stretch in which they’ll play two straight and four of five games on the road. That five-game span ends with games at Cincinnati and at Pittsburgh. But the close to the season could offer hope for a playoff push with the final four games against Miami, Jacksonville, Houston and Cleveland.

The Bengals have the upper hand in the division after winning the opener in Baltimore. But the Ravens clearly are a factor in the division and AFC playoff races, thanks to their play over the past three games.

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