Whether it was said this week in the Ravens' meeting rooms or on the practice field depends on whom you asked. But what was clear for 60 minutes Sunday against the New York Jets and in the locker room afterward was that the Ravens were intent on proving they had the better defense.
Along with doing exactly that, the Ravens generated the type of game they need to repeat if they hope to play meaningful football in late December and beyond.
Opportunistic on offense, overwhelming on defense and perfect in the kicking game, the Ravens took apart the overmatched Jets, 19-3, in front of an announced 71,148 at windy and frigid M&T Bank Stadium.
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“This is November-December football,” said Ravens coach John Harbaugh, who improved to 3-0 against his former defensive coordinator, Jets coach Rex Ryan. “It's how you have to play to win in November and December … in this part of the country.”
Quarterback Joe Flacco, relegated to a bystander for parts of the game with the Ravens using backup Tyrod Taylor under center, essentially put the game away by beating former teammate Ed Reed on a 66-yard touchdown pass to Jacoby Jones with five seconds left in the third quarter.
Kicker Justin Tucker was 4-for-4 on field goals, accounting for the Ravens' first 12 points. Their defense, meanwhile, was a constant, forcing three turnovers and holding the Jets to 220 yards of total offense and 12 first downs.
“We always say, ‘It's our show.' That's how we look at it — not with an arrogance but with a confidence, knowing the type of players that we have on that field defensively. We go with that mindset — ‘Let's take over,'” Ravens safety James Ihedigbo said. “Baltimore has been built on defense. We know we have to play that way to win. We have to dominate and take over games and allow the offense to have great field position and score. That's a formula for winning this season: [When we] have great performances, we win, hands down. We've got to keep doing it.”
Now 5-6 with the next two games at M&T Bank Stadium, where they are 4-1 this season, the Ravens have four days to prepare for their Thanksgiving night matchup with the Pittsburgh Steelers in a game that carries heavy significance in the AFC playoff picture.
The Ravens, Steelers, Jets, Tennessee Titans, San Diego Chargers and Miami Dolphins are 5-6, though the Titans hold the sixth and final playoff spot based on a complicated tiebreaker formula. Three other teams are right behind that group with 4-7 records.
“Every week is a must-win,” said Ravens wide receiver Torrey Smith (Maryland), who had two catches for 74 yards, including a 60-yard completion. “If you lose, things aren't going to be looking pretty for you. We just have to keep giving ourselves a fighting chance.”
It wasn't a complete performance for the Ravens, by any means. They went 0-for-4 in the red zone, settling for three field goals by Tucker. They didn't get points on the other trip because Flacco threw an interception from the Jets' 17 on a play in which rookie wide receiver Marlon Brown didn't finish his route.
Flacco was sacked four times, and the Ravens managed just 67 rushing yards on 31 carries against the NFL's top-ranked run defense. Taylor, who was on the field for 12 offensive plays, finished with 7 yards on four carries, but the offensive wrinkle appeared to give the Ravens a jolt early.
However, the Ravens did more than enough things well to have their way with a flawed Jets team and a regressing rookie quarterback. Flacco mostly kept the ball out of harm's way, completing 17 of 26 passes for 273 yards. Along with catching four balls for 103 yards, Jones consistently set the Ravens up with good field position, averaging 21.6 yards on five punt returns and 19 yards on two kickoff returns.
After looking confused defending the Wildcat on the Jets' second drive, which resulted in a 27-yard field goal by Nick Folk, the Ravens shut out New York for the final 51:52. On their final 10 full drives, the Jets punted seven times and fumbled once, and quarterback Geno Smith threw two interceptions, both to Corey Graham.
“We always want to be the best defense on the field. That's just how it is, regardless of who we're playing,” Graham said. “We knew they've got a pretty good front seven, and they play good ball, but when it came down to it, we wanted to be a dominant defense, and that's what we were able to do today.”
The three points were the fewest the Ravens have allowed since the Detroit Lions managed only a field goal on Dec. 13, 2009. The 220 yards the Ravens surrendered were a season low, as were the Jets' 118 net passing yards. New York's 1-for-12 performance on third down was the fourth-stingiest performance in Ravens franchise history.
“I feel we were dialed in as a defense today,” rush linebacker Terrell Suggs said. “There's always a little something added when we're playing Rex. … We're proud of the fact that we didn't give up a touchdown. Getting off the field on third down was huge today and also giving our offense more possessions and being able to control the clock.”
Geno Smith went just 9-for-22 for 127 yards and two interceptions, good for a 22.3 quarterback rating. Ryan summed up his rookie quarterback's performance succinctly, saying, “He's had better days.” On their lone scoring drive, the Jets mostly relied on trickery as wide receiver Josh Cribbs, who was a quarterback in college, threw a 13-yard pass to Smith on one play and took a direct snap on two others.
“You can only do that for so long. You're eventually going to have to line up and play football. We played disciplined-style football and made plays when we had the opportunity,” Ihedigbo said. “We said it: ‘Don't be afraid to be great.' We want to be a great defense. It's playoff-style football, so you have to go to the next level. Guys did that today. We just got to continue doing it.”
Added Ravens cornerback Lardarius Webb: "It came down to it. We wanted to be the better defense on the field. We respect Rex, we know he's a great coach. In the end, we just felt like, 'Lets win a game for the defense, not for nobody else, just defense lets go out and try to win a game.'"
Ihedigbo called it the most complete performance by the Ravens “by far.” He didn't get any argument from Jones.
“We finally got our game together in all three phases,” Jones said. “We always say, ‘Offense roll, defenses hold, special teams just play special [and] you'll get big wins.'”