Joe Flacco gives Ravens edge in playoff race, running game a mirage, and more from Sunday's win

The Baltimore Sun

Sunday was another cold day with gusting winds, something that will be the norm the rest of the way, but with big hands, long levers and a strong right arm, Joe Flacco was built to play in that weather. Flacco’s throws cut through the crisp November air as he led the Ravens to a critical 19-3 win over the New York Jets.

In a game the Ravens absolutely needed to win to keep their postseason hopes alive, Flacco delivered his best performance in weeks, completing 17 of his 26 pass attempts for 273 yards and one touchdown. His quarterback rating was 97.1 and he averaged 10.5 yards per attempt, his highest mark of the season.

Sure, Flacco threw one interception when he and wide receiver Marlon Brown got mixed up in the red zone and he fluttered one deep ball in the first quarter that should have been picked off. But if you think the Ravens would be better off with another quarterback -- even his backup -- consider the alternatives.

Look at the logjam in the race for the AFC’s final wild-card spot and you will see a bunch of bad quarterbacks, a mix of guys who are inexperienced, overmatched or erratic -- or a combination of all three. Of the six teams in the conference with five wins and the three teams with four, only three signal-callers have won a playoff game.

The Jets are starting a rookie quarterback in Geno Smith, who threw for just 127 yards and was intercepted twice at M&T Bank Stadium on Sunday. The Tennessee Titans, currently in position to be the sixth seed, are rolling with interception-prone veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick. The Oakland Raiders are starting an undrafted rookie in Matt McGloin, the Cleveland Browns a journeyman in Jason Campbell, the Miami Dolphins and Buffalo Bills youngsters in Ryan Tannehill and E.J. Manuel, respectively.

Only three of the teams have a competent quarterback, and an argument can be made that the Ravens have the best of the bunch in Flacco, the reigning Super Bowl MVP.

Of course, the Pittsburgh Steelers can also make the same argument about their big lug under center, Ben Roethlisberger, who has guided them to two Super Bowl titles.

Every week we see the difference quarterback play makes in the outcome of games. Sunday’s game at the Bank was a good example of that, with Flacco outclassing Smith. That is why the Ravens, Steelers and the San Diego Chargers, who have Philip Rivers, should be considered the favorites to sneak into the playoffs as the sixth seed.

Despite spending five snaps near the sideline as a $120.6 million decoy Sunday, Flacco was calm under pressure and made plays outside of the pocket, whether he was running to his left or his right. And after a bunch of missed connections in recent weeks, Flacco completed a pair of beautiful deep balls to his wide receivers, wind gusts be damned.

His 60-yard completion to Torrey Smith in the second quarter helped them take a 6-3 lead. And with the breeze at his back and the Ravens leading by nine points late in the third quarter, Flacco launched a ball into orbit and over the Jets secondary to Jacoby Jones, who went 66 yards and danced in the end zone for the first time in a month.

Flacco will likely need to out-duel Roethlisberger on Thanksgiving night for the Ravens to beat the Steelers, who are also 5-6, in another game that is a virtual must-win. The Ravens paid him all that money because of his ability to win games like this -- cold weather, a nasty opponent and everything on the line.

One thing that I learned

The Ravens' success running the ball against the Chicago Bears was a mirage. In that overtime loss, running back Ray Rice rushed for 131 yards and a touchdown and had a 47-yard run that was by far his longest gain of the season. Against the Jets and their top-ranked rushing defense, though, the running lanes disappeared and Rice had just 30 yards on 16 carries as the Ravens as a team averaged 2.2 yards per pop. While the numbers don’t exactly show it, they did run the ball better than they were a few weeks ago. Still, it’s pretty obvious that their big game on the ground against the Bears was more a product of a favorable matchup than it was a breakthrough in performance.

Handing out game balls

Wide receiver Jacoby Jones gets the offensive game ball after catching four passes for 103 yards and a touchdown. Cornerback Corey Graham gets the defensive game ball for picking off two passes. And punter Sam Koch had a heck of a game, too, dropping a few punts inside the 20-yard line, including a couple beauties inside the 5-yard line.

This week’s head-scratcher

In a critical game between two playoff hopefuls, the Jets often asked a wide receiver who was signed off the street a few weeks ago to line up under center, not their rookie quarterback. I know Geno Smith has crashed face-first into the proverbial rookie wall. On Sunday, he threw for just 127 yards and had two passes intercepted -- an improvement over his performance in a loss to the Buffalo Bills a week earlier. But as bad as he was, the Jets would have been better off sticking with Smith instead of running the nearly-extinct Wildcat offense with Josh Cribbs. They had some success with it early, but the Ravens quickly figured it out. I’m not saying the outcome would have been different, but Smith is the one who brought the Jets to the dance, so why not stick with him? Looks like the Jets are on their way to crushing another young QB’s confidence.

The stat that stands out

22 -- straight field goals made by kicker Justin Tucker, who made all four of his attempts in the win, including a 53-yarder.

They said it (or tweeted it)

“It’s good and fun for a little bit, but that’s it. I don’t want to be lining up at Z and X. I want to line up behind center.” -- Flacco on the Ravens’ trick plays with Tyrod Taylor.

Three (thoughts) and out

1. Taylor, who might be the best athlete on the team, gave the Ravens a spark in the early going before the Jets came up with some answers. Still, his ability to run the read-option for a few plays in a game could help the Ravens find success running the ball. Taylor’s 17-yard run in the first half was the team’s longest. But Taylor needs to make better decisions running the ball. He lost seven yards on one run and six on another. He also said after the game that he thought he could have rushed for a long touchdown on one play, but he made a mistake by handing the ball to the running back instead of pulling it out and taking off into the open field. I know Flacco wasn’t thrilled about the ball being taken out of his hands to get Taylor involved in the game plan, but I wouldn’t be surprised if we see it happen again down the stretch.

2. Jets safety Ed Reed, formerly of the Houston Texans, said last week that quarterbacks were avoiding throwing in his direction and that he hoped that it would change Sunday. Reed got the opportunity he was looking for late in the third quarter when Flacco executed a play fake and heaved a deep ball to Jacoby Jones, who was running a deep post. Reed, who was lined up in deep center field like he was Adam Jones, didn’t bite on the play fake and was in position to make a play, but he struggled to track the ball and couldn’t keep up with Jones, who caught the pass and ran for a 66-yard touchdown. It is clear that Reed still has the savvy that made him an all-time great at the safety position, but Father Time has finally tackled him. That play was the biggest of the game and you can be sure Reed is going to be ripped for not making it.

3. Despite making a season-low three tackles, middle linebacker Daryl Smith had another impactful game for the Ravens. Smith had a sack, drilled the Jets quarterback on another play and batted down three passes. There was one series in the second half when the Jets targeted him on three straight plays in coverage and he did not allow a completion. Smith has been quite the bargain for the Ravens this season. It will be interesting to see if he is back in Baltimore next season. The 31-year-old is on a one-year deal and is playing well enough to probably generate interest from other teams in free agency. Plus, Jameel McClain is healthy now and Arthur Brown will have a year of experience under him. Assuming Smith wants to stay and the price is right, the Ravens should bring him back, but that might be assuming too much.

Copyright © 2018, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad