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Preston: Even when they’re not at their best, these Ravens still find a way to win

Ravens coach John Harbaugh talks about the team's win over the Buffalo Bills at New Era Field.

It was inevitable that, sooner or later, the Ravens weren’t going to be able to match the intensity that they played with in recent weeks.

But on Sunday, they still found a way to win, with a 24-17 victory against the Buffalo Bills before an announced crowd of 69,133 at New Era Field. That’s a good sign, because in the past, the Ravens have lost these types of games.

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It’s hard to win every week in the NFL and even harder to win nine straight. Before Sunday’s game, the Ravens weren’t just barely pulling out victories; they were mauling the opposition. They beat the Seattle Seahawks by 14, the New England Patriots by 17, the Houston Texans by 34 and the Los Angeles Rams by 39.

And last week, in one of the greatest games played by the Ravens since winning the Super Bowl in the 2012 season, they beat the San Francisco 49ers, 20-17.

Some believed that this game against Buffalo was going to be a trap game, but it wasn’t. A trap game is against a team that is downright pathetic, like the New York Jets, who the Ravens play Thursday night. They are already preparing to go home for the offseason.

Buffalo had won nine of 12 games. They entered Sunday only a game behind the Patriots in the AFC East race, so the Bills were hungry. They wanted to put on their big boy pants and show the rest of the league that they had arrived.

And that’s why the Ravens’ win against Buffalo was so impressive. They didn’t bring their "A" game and still beat an up-and-coming team. It was close, but the Ravens were due for an emotional letdown.

“I feel like it just kind of proves where our guys are at,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “I mean, we talk all the time. No test, no testimony. You want to be able to talk about something, do something special, you got to be tested, and this is the National Football League. You’re going to be tested.

“It helps us going forward. Look who we’ve been playing all the way here. We just got to keep getting better. We can play a lot better than we did, we can, and we’ve got to keep chasing that.”

Now, if they lose to the Jets on Thursday night, there will be hell to pay, but you like that they grinded out a win Sunday. The Bills might get into the playoffs, but it’s highly unlikely that they’ll make a deep run.

They’ve got a good, athletic front seven and have some tough corners who can match up with anybody. But second-year quarterback Josh Allen is too inconsistent and inaccurate, the offensive line is not very good and Buffalo doesn’t have any skilled offensive players who make a defensive coordinator stay up late at night.

Yet they took the Ravens to the brink. If the Ravens are smart, maybe they’ll learn from this game. In the past two weeks, it looks like opposing teams are catching up to them and their pistol offense.

Both the 49ers and the Bills stacked the line of scrimmage and got their ends and outside linebackers to penetrate up field, forcing quarterback Lamar Jackson farther behind the line of scrimmage and to bounce outside on option plays.

More teams are realizing that Jackson likes to throw in the middle of the field because he is inaccurate throwing outside the numbers, especially to his wide receivers. If teams have good cornerbacks and crowd the line of scrimmage, they’ll give the Ravens problems.

Ravens offensive coordinator Greg Roman knows more teams are catching on to him. He got too cute Sunday with that Wildcat offense and those backside screens going away from running back Mark Ingram II, especially in the second quarter when the Ravens were pounding the Bills inside.

Maybe now he’ll find a way to get more out of his receivers, especially with tight Mark Andrews recovering from a knee/thigh injury.

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“They definitely had a plan and beyond,” Ravens tight end Hayden Hurst said. "I think they did some of what San Francisco did to us. It was a very physical and fast defense. They had a couple of extra days to prep for us and it’s good to get that one under our belts. It was a playoff game in a playoff atmosphere.”

Defensively, the Ravens were fortunate that Allen wasn’t accurate. He had receivers open most of the game, and when he did deliver passes on the mark, his receivers couldn’t hold on to them.

This wasn’t as bad as the beginning of the season, when opposing receivers routinely got open, but you have to wonder how this is happening in the final month of the regular season. It’s as disturbing as the Ravens being penalized for having 12 defensive players on the field again.

Cornerback Jimmy Smith looks a step slower than he used to. Fellow cornerback Marcus Peters spends more time grumbling with opposing players and officials than staying focused on the game.

During the Bills’ final 12-play drive, which started at the Bills 28 and ended at the Ravens 16 with 1:03 remaining, the Ravens had two unsportsmanlike conduct penalties and were called for pass interference.

The Ravens can’t make those mistakes. Pass interference calls happen, but the roughing penalties need to be cleaned up. That’s about discipline.

A lot of teachable moments come from losses, but the best ones come when the team plays poorly and still wins. Morale stays high. The Ravens will be high from Sunday’s win, but they know there is still a lot to work on.

They weren’t lucky Sunday. The best team won. But they can’t stay at this level long. Hopefully, they got it out of their system. They were due.

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