There's winning pretty. There's winning ugly.
And somewhere in the middle, there's the Baltimore Ravens.
The Ravens have won six of eight games to place themselves atop the AFC North at the midway point of the 2012 regular season, but folks would be disingenuous if they said this year's team at all reminded them of the dominance the franchise has portrayed in seasons past.
A chance to chart a bold course in the season's second half comes with a visit by the injury depleted Oakland Raiders on Sunday afternoon at M&T Bank Stadium.
Baltimore was a 31-point winner in its season-opener against division rival Cincinnati, but its only decisive result since was a poor one -- coming via 30-point margin in a loss at Houston on Oct. 21.
Alongside those two routs, the Ravens lost by one against Philadelphia in Week 2 before reeling off wins by margins of one, seven, three and two. The loss to the Texans was followed by a 10-point defeat of the Cleveland Browns, in which Baltimore trailed until the game's final stages.
"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."
The traditionally strong defense has dropped from its habitual pedestal this season and is 26th in the league with an average allowance of 386.3 yards per week. Additionally, the Ravens are now without both Ray Lewis (triceps) and Lardarius Webb (ACL) for the season.
On offense, Ray Rice ran for 98 of the aggregate 137 rush yards last week after Baltimore had just 141 combined yards in its previous two games.
"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."
The Ravens ran the ball 37 times last week while quarterback Joe Flacco had season-lows with just 153 pass yards on 24 throws. In its last 24 regular- season games, Baltimore is 18-0 when it runs 22 or more times 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. Truth is, it's going to take different things in different games to win."
As it heads from California to Maryland, Oakland no doubt wishes it had Baltimore's problems.
The Raiders have seen running backs Darren McFadden and backup Mike Goodson slowed by ankle sprains and neither practiced Wednesday. Nonetheless, Oakland did not bring in another back as insurance and will instead go with No. 3 man Taiwan Jones or fullback Marcel Reese if the top two can't go.
"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.
While both runners were getting dinged-up against Tampa Bay in a 10-point loss, quarterback Carson Palmer completed 39 of 61 passes for 414 yards, four touchdowns with three interceptions -- his fourth straight game with at least one pick.
Still, he's 9-4 in his career -- mostly with Cincinnati -- against the Ravens.
"I don't fear any quarterbacks, but I'm always worried when I play Carson Palmer," Baltimore's 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."
On defense, the Raiders are tied for 28th in the league in scoring (allowing 28.6 points per game) and lead just one team (Jacksonville) with 11 overall sacks. Against the Buccaneers, Oakland saw rookie running back Doug Martin go for 251 yards and score four times.
As a unit, the Raiders have allowed 10 rush TDs in eight games.
"We have got to learn from those mistakes and we have to be able to get it corrected," Allen said.
Baltimore won, 21-13, behind 240 rush yards and three scores in the teams' most recent meeting in January 2010. In two games against the Raiders, Rice has 134 yards on 22 attempts.
The Ravens are 6-1 in the all-time series and have won three straight.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Martin, who stands 5-foot-9, gashed the Oakland defense for 251 yards and four touchdowns in last week's debacle. This week, the Raiders need to contend with another 5-foot-9 runner, Rice, who's got significantly more street cred heading into the matchup than the Buccaneers' rookie did.
The Ravens' fireplug has averaged 4.7 yards per carry and scored six ground touchdowns in eight games in 2012, thanks in large part to an offensive line with talented behemoths like Michael Oher and Marshal Yanda. Assuming those two help negate the Raiders up front, the burden of limiting Rice falls on a linebacking corps lead by Miles Burris. How successful they are will determine how much the Ravens need to rely on Joe Flacco.
The Raiders have played respectably against good teams (Atlanta, Pittsburgh) and well against bad teams (Jacksonville, Kansas City), but have been maddeningly unpredictable in other games against San Diego, Denver, Miami and Tampa Bay. They've got another good foe this Sunday, and, combined with a cross-country trip, it's hard to go in expecting a dramatic reversal of past trends.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Ravens 20, Raiders 10