If you were hoping for a purple-and-black Christmas, spike the eggnog and start dreaming about the playoffs.
The Ravens delivered a king-sized smackdown Saturday night that nearly knocked the Los Angeles Chargers out of their little toy stadium and pushed Philip Rivers’ high-scoring offense so far south that he must have thought he was back in San Diego.
And the weekend just kept getting better. The New Orleans Saints made a late comeback to defeat the Pittsburgh Steelers, 31-28, early Sunday night, vaulting the Ravens into first place in the AFC North. That means they’ll get a home playoff game if they hold serve next weekend against the Cleveland Browns.
Either way, the Ravens figured to be that team that nobody wants to draw in the first round, for obvious reasons. They have the best defense in the league and they might have the toughest offense to defend. That’s a pretty nice combination.
This isn’t your father’s Ravens defense, but it certainly brought back memories of those heady days when opposing teams were lucky to score in double digits and no quarterback ever felt comfortable in the pocket.
Lamar Jackson might not look like anyone who ever lined up under center in Baltimore, but he’s obviously the real deal and he’s got five wins in his first six NFL starts to prove it. He remains a work in progress, but it would be hard to find anyone who still thinks Joe Flacco should have been plugged right back in after he came back from that hip injury.
OK, so it’s a little early to celebrate. There Ravens have one more regular-season game next week and it’s against a Browns team that is no longer the dependable doormat it has been for most of the 21st century.
The stage could be set for the ultimate letdown, but that’s hard to imagine with the Ravens on the roll they’ve carried through the second half of the season. They will be home and, this time, they’ll be the team with the extra rest and all the motivation in the world to nail down their first playoff appearance since 2014.
Sure, the Browns would love to come in and complete their first winning season since 2007 at the expense of the team that abandoned Cleveland. They’ve got a scary young quarterback, too, but their thin playoff hopes evaporated Saturday night when the Ravens spirited their ninth victory of the season out of LA.
They have a ton of late-season momentum, too, but what they don’t have is the most stifling defense in the NFL, which just happens to be playing its best football at just the right point in the season. If you doubt that, you can check with Rivers, who is still trying to figure out which direction the next quarterback hit is going to come from.
Here’s something else the Ravens have going for them. They will spend this week preparing for the Browns without a hint of real controversy concerning their coach or their quarterback. The decision to announce Friday that John Harbaugh would definitely be retained through 2019 ended weeks of speculation about his job security.
We’ll see what happens with the negotiations toward a long-term extension, because he would be a hot commodity when his current contract expires after next season, but that’s a story for the coming offseason … which Ravens fans hope will not come anytime soon.
If there’s any room left to worry about Jackson, he still is having some ball-security issues and the Chargers were able to contain him better than any previous opposing defense. He rushed for 39 yards on 13 carries, but that included a 27-yard breakaway.
That didn’t prevent him from moving the offense and allaying some concerns about his ability to throw the ball. He dropped a perfect pass over the shoulder of rookie tight end Mark Andrews for a 68-yard touchdown that flipped the lead after the Ravens fell behind in the third quarter.
Obviously, all eyes were on Sunday’s game between the Steelers and the Saints, which represented the difference between a possible home playoff game at M&T Stadium featuring the AFC North champion Ravens or a postseason spent entirely on the road.