As he does each week, Childs Walker shares his five biggest takeaways from the Ravens' win over the Miami Dolphins on Sunday.
1. The Ravens delivered their most resilient performance of 2014 when they needed it most.
I didn't think they had it in them.
I'm quite certain I was not alone in collecting my thoughts for an obituary on the Ravens' 2014 season as they flailed around the field in Miami for 27 minutes of the first half.
Let's rewind to that point and remember just how dire the situation looked. A 10-0 deficit on the road against a prime wild-card rival was bad enough. But the score really didn't capture how bereft of inspiration the Ravens appeared. They couldn't move the ball by ground or by air. They couldn't defend Ryan Tannehill's razor short passes. They couldn't stop from jumping offsides.
With Haloti Ngata suspended for using Adderall and playmakers Torrey Smith and Justin Forsett hobbling around, I figured the Ravens had finally taken too many body blows. We were watching their 2014 hopes crumple to the canvas for good.
But as I've written many times, John Harbaugh's greatest calling card as a coach is that his teams have never quit on a season. And that goes not just for the coach, of course, but for all of the team's veterans, from Joe Flacco to Terrell Suggs to Marshal Yanda to Elvis Dumervil.
Beginning with the 97-yard drive Flacco led in the waning minutes of the first half, the 2014 Ravens got up.
The pass rush, which hadn't bothered Tannehill early, suddenly became the dominant element in the game. After his dumb interception cost the Ravens points in the second quarter, Flacco outdueled Tannehill the rest of the way. The Ravens' offensive line wore down Miami's defensive front, helping Forsett break a key 44-yard run late in the game.
It was really something to watch the Ravens come to life on so many fronts.
They're right back in the heart of the playoff race, a tie-break away from the AFC's last wild-card spot and lurking a half game behind the Cincinnati Bengals in the AFC North. They won't face a single top quarterback (the bane of their recent existence) the final three weeks.
Boil down the NFL's allure to a single element and it's that every week feels so dang momentous. It's amazing to think how imperiled the Ravens' 17-week story seemed at the end of their loss to San Diego and how downright hopeless it seemed at about 2:30 p.m. Sunday. And now we're all thinking playoffs.
2. Elvis Dumervil deserved about three game balls for his effort.
The nightmare of recent weeks seemed well on its way to repeating Sunday, as Tannehill did what he wanted against an injury-plagued Ravens secondary.
Just like the ghosts of quarterbacks past — Roethlisberger, Brees, Rivers in case y'all forgot — Miami's trigger man could not miss.
When Dumervil spoke in the locker room after the previous week's loss, it was obvious how responsible he felt for the Ravens' recent struggles against good quarterbacks. He was frustrated with his own offsides penalties, but more than that, he knew pressure was the Ravens' only real solution, what with the secondary in tatters. And he hadn't delivered enough of it by his own high standards. In fact, he might have lined up in the neutral zone precisely because he was too desperate to do his part.
Well, I hope Dumervil slept well Sunday night. Because his 3.5 sacks paced the Ravens' second-half decimation of Tannehill, who led the Dolphins to just a field goal on Miami's last seven drives of the game.
Sometimes, he did it with straight speed. Sometimes, he just kept twisting and charging until they couldn't block him anymore. By any means necessary, Dumervil brought his 2014 sack total to 16, one better than Peter Boulware's previous single-season record for the Ravens. He was the MVP of his team's most important win of the season.
His rushing buddy, Terrell Suggs, kicked in six tackles and 1.5 sacks of his own.
Look, the Ravens' secondary isn't healthy and isn't very good by any measure. But with Dumervil and Co. playing like that, it didn't matter.
3. Backed into a corner, Joe Flacco delivered one of his best performances of the year.
Flacco had to be flogging himself internally after he lobbed an interception into the end zone off his back foot, costing the Ravens at least three points that would've seemed awfully nice to have at the time.
But he rebounded with some of his most confident passing of the season, really stepping into his downfield throws despite the absence of Torrey Smith, who was active but essentially absent because of a knee injury.
Flacco re-established his link with Steve Smith, though the veteran dropped a potential touchdown pass in an otherwise strong outing. And he found immediate chemistry with Kamar Aiken, who filled in ably for Torrey Smith with six catches on seven targets.
He did it with the help of an offensive line that generally neutralized Miami's rush, one of the best in the league coming in.
Flacco got a little lucky when his possible fumble on the Ravens' third scoring drive was overturned to an incomplete pass. But it looked like the right call.
When we're reviewing Flacco's career some years down the line, his 269 yards and two touchdowns against Miami won't jump off the page. But make no mistake, his rebound from an ugly start on the road against a tough opponent was essential to his team's overall demonstration of mettle.
4. John Harbaugh should be applauded for his aggression on fourth down.
It's easy to say after the fact, but Harbaugh made one of his best decisions of the day when he went for it on fourth down with the ball in Ravens' territory in the third quarter. Easy to say because Flacco converted on a quarterback sneak and the drive ended with a touchdown.
Yes, I'm part of the analytics hoard that cringes every time a coach punts without a second thought when faced with a fourth down in the middle of the field. As many of you have likely heard, almost every study of the issue has found coaches are too conservative based on the probabilities involved.
For most of his career, Harbaugh ranked roughly middle of the pack in coaching aggression, as charted by the web site Football Outsiders. In a few seasons, he ranked near the bottom of the league in fourth-down attempts. But he seems to have found religion on this subject. The Ravens entered Sunday tied for second in the NFL in fourth-down attempts with 14 and tied for third in conversions with eight.
Flacco is a major weapon on these plays — a tall, tough quarterback pushing behind the strong run blockers at the center of the Ravens' line. Harbaugh, knowing his best option and understanding the Ravens desperately needed to get their offense rolling in a vital game, took an even bigger risk than usual in Miami. It worked.
The CBS announcers practically gasped at his audacity as announcers are wont to do. But kudos to Harbaugh for doing the bold thing and the smart thing.
5. The impact of Haloti Ngata's suspension wasn't clear.
You'd assume losing one of the NFL's best interior linemen would hamper a team's run defense. And the Ravens did look more vulnerable than usual early in the game as Dolphins' running back Lamar Miller picked his way through gaps in their front.
But as Harbaugh has correctly pointed out, depth in the defensive line is a strength for this team, with Brandon Williams and Ngata's rookie replacement, Timmy Jernigan, both grading as able run stoppers. Linebacker C.J. Mosley also excels against the run.
As the game wore on, the Dolphins stopped testing the Ngata-free front. Whether that represented a flaw in their game plan or recognition of diminishing returns is hard to say. All we know for sure is Miller finished the game with just 12 carries despite his early success.
Ngata has also rushed effectively up the middle this season, but he wasn't missed terribly there either, with Chris Canty playing well in addition to the remarkable efforts from Dumervil and Suggs on the edges.
Ngata's suspension was the big story of the week, given how respected he is and how well he'd played this season. But honestly, this might be a loss the Ravens are equipped to endure far better than the season-ending injury to cornerback Jimmy Smith.