This is the time of the season when serious playoff contenders start to dominate and separate from the middle of the pack.
The Ravens beat the Dallas Cowboys, 34-17, on Tuesday night, even though were far from overwhelming. But right now, it really doesn’t make a difference for this team. They needed a win, any win. They can worry about the style points later.
“It has to be. It has to be a spark,” running back Gus Edwards said. “We’ve got all of our goals ahead of us, and for us to keep them there, we have to keep winning. Winning every game and playing winning football — not making mistakes. We made very few mistakes today, but we’ve got to cancel those, too.”
The Ravens (7-5) ended a three-game losing streak by beating defenseless Cowboys (3-9) and kept their playoff hopes alive. They almost certainly have to win the last four games of the regular season to reach the magic number of 11 wins, and that has to be their focus.
Just win baby.
The Cowboys were competitive for nearly three quarters, and that’s not promising for the Ravens, especially considering that Dallas entered the game with the worst rushing defense in the NFL and was allowing a league-high 32.6 points per game.
But who cares?
The Ravens had to win. A year ago, they appeared to be peaking at this time. When the regular season ended, they had won 12 straight, secured home-field advantage in the playoffs and produced the top rushing offense in the history of the league.
Back then, the discussions were about whether the Ravens were going to play their starters in the regular-season finale, or how much flights to Miami and tickets for the Super Bowl were going to cost. Now, the debate is whether the Ravens will even get into the postseason.
That’s why the Ravens didn’t have to be pretty or methodical Tuesday night. They needed to just win a game and start building. They needed to regain some confidence after struggling through a COVID-19 outbreak and losing to the New England Patriots, Tennessee Titans and the rival Pittsburgh Steelers, twice.
The big sigh of relief that was heard over in Owings Mills on Tuesday night was from the Ravens coaching staff, because now they have something to fight for again Monday night when they travel to Cleveland.
If they had lost to Dallas, the Ravens would have had a hard time regrouping.
“Just keep building [and] staying focused on our craft,” quarterback Lamar Jackson said. “Everyone just has to do their assignments. I feel we could pull it off. We’ve got the Browns right now — a great team. We’ve got to come to play. We’re going to Cleveland, [and] we’ve just got to be ready to play football.”
There were some positives to take away from Tuesday night’s win. Quarterback Lamar Jackson struggled with his accuracy, but at least he wasn’t hesitant making decisions. When his receivers weren’t open, Jackson tucked the ball and ran. He completed 12 of 17 passes for 107 yards, two touchdowns and an interception, and also rushed 13 times for 94 yards and a touchdown.
That’s when Jackson and the Ravens are at their offensive best. The Ravens can try to turn him into a more conventional passer, but he is sensational when he improvises. Some days, he’ll make great plays, and on others he’ll cause great harm.
That’s life with Jackson as the signal-caller.
“Well, the one thing you do know about Lamar, you’re going to get everything he’s got — that’s really all you can ask for,” coach John Harbaugh said. “He’s going to give you whatever he has, and it turned out that he had a lot tonight — that was good to see. I don’t think you could predict that. He came out to practice. He looked good in practice. He was strong and healthy. I’m just impressed of the fact that he was on top of the game plan so well. He’d been studying, obviously, through the whole time he was away [on the reserve/COVID-19 list], and he played a great football game.”
The Ravens rushed for 294 yards against the Cowboys, which was to be expected because every team pounds Dallas on the ground. But at least for one night, these Ravens looked like the Ravens of 2019 with the ground-and-pound attack. The only problem is when the coaching staff is finally going to let rookie J.K. Dobbins become the featured back instead of sharing the role with Mark Ingram II and Edwards.
Defensively, the Ravens looked tired and fearful of Dallas’ passing game. They were so worried about giving up big plays to receivers Amari Cooper and CeeDee Lamb that they consistently played 10 to 15 yards off of them at the line of scrimmage. The Ravens have trouble with speed, which is why they can’t beat the Kansas City Chiefs.
On the defensive line, returning nose tackle Brandon Williams and end Calais Campbell didn’t have that pop and couldn’t get off blocks, which is why the Cowboys rushed for 111 yards on 28 carries.
In November and December, teams shouldn’t just be winning games, but clobbering teams like the Cowboys.
But it’s different in 2020. For the next couple of weeks, a win is truly a win for this outfit.
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It’s about staying alive.