1.) If you want to understand the essence of watching the Ravens, this was it.
Why oh why were Baltimore football fans forced to watch, with jaws clenched and tummies roiling, as a rookie quarterback on a lousy road team dropped back for a 2-point attempt that could effectively end the Ravens’ season?
Hadn't the Ravens stood 11 yards from a touchdown that would have secured an easy home victory?
Hadn't they entered this must-win game with the league’s most impregnable run defense?
How did the Eagles grind out 169 rushing yards and win the time-of-possession battle by 13 minutes?
How did the whole season come down to a moment of such awful, avoidable tension?
Well, as the Ravens themselves often say, that’s how they do it. Of course they won in the most agonizing fashion possible.
Remember the 38-6 laugher against the Miami Dolphins? That was the exception to the rule, the lie about what this team is. This uneven, anxious victory was the truth.
2.) The Ravens’ defense delivered its most atypical performance of the season.
Several times this year, we’ve seen injuries to Jimmy Smith lead to collapses on the back end of the defense. But this time, cornerbacks Shareece Wright and Jerraud Powers played well filling in for Smith, and safety Eric Weddle was everywhere in coverage.
With help from a steady pass rush, the Ravens’ secondary held rookie quarterback Carson Wentz to one of his worst games as a pro.
But the secondary’s performance without Smith was heartening regardless.
Meanwhile, the Ravens’ front seven inexplicably struggled against Philadelphia’s pedestrian ground attack. The Ravens lost too many battles at the line of scrimmage and missed too many tackles once Eagles running backs Ryan Mathews and Byron Marshall reached open space.
This was not a case of a few big runs skewing the overall statistics. The Eagles, especially Mathews (128 yards on 20 carries), gashed the Ravens all afternoon long.
As a result, the Eagles dominated the ball in the second and third quarters and hung around in a game they had little business winning.
We haven’t seen the Ravens play the run this poorly all season. But they also struggled against the Patriots’ LeGarrette Blount in some power situations on Monday night. So it’s not good news that Le’Veon Bell, with 447 rushing yards over his last three games, is up next. John Harbaugh said he expects the Steelers to use some of the same zone blocking techniques that worked so well for the Eagles.
If the Ravens don’t play more typical run defense in Pittsburgh — they completely stymied Bell in their Nov. 6 win in Baltimore — it’s hard to imagine them winning.
3.) After a frustrating week, Steve Smith delivered his most meaningful performance of the season.
Earlier in the week, Smith hurled his helmet in a display of practice fury. He has been one of the loudest voices calling for more aggressive game plans from the Ravens’ coaching staff. And at the same time, he has struggled to produce to his own high expectations.
If this is the great receiver’s final season, it has been an uneven valedictory statement.
Against the Eagles, Flacco seemed determined to hit Smith for a big play in the first quarter, but the two could not find the same page.
Smith lost his footing the first time Flacco targeted him, and Flacco misfired on the next three attempts, two of them well downfield.
You could feel the entire stadium exhale when they got it right on a 34-yard touchdown with nine seconds left in the first half. It was the longest pass Smith had caught since October 2.
Smith later showed tremendous concentration to catch a deflected pass and turn it into a first down early in the fourth quarter. His play sustained a drive that ended in a touchdown and gave the Ravens a 10-point lead. They’d need every one of those points.
Smith’s final stat line — two catches for 40 yards — won’t headline his Hall of Fame resume. But he busted out when the Ravens needed him most.
4.) The Ravens’ running backs showed they can produce in an essential game, whether the team wants to use them or not.
Every week now we seem to talk about how the Ravens ignore their running game. That conversation will surely continue after Flacco threw his fourth-quarter interception in a situation that seemed ripe for a run.
Harbaugh even said he should have vetoed the pass call.
The Ravens’ refusal to run was particularly puzzling because their backs had done such good work to that point, aided by another excellent performance from the left side of the offensive line.
Terrance West played one of his best games, running for 77 yards on 13 carries and catching four passes on four targets.
Wide receiver Michael Campanaro also got in on the act with a 39-yard gain on a well-designed third-down sweep.
On the next drive, Dixon dropped a pass that left the Ravens at third-and-12 in Eagles territory. They settled for a field goal.
But he ran with his usual toughness and scored the touchdown that gave the Ravens their final margin of victory.
Are the Ravens’ running backs game-breaking superstars? No. Should they play a larger part in the offense, especially with a more stable offensive line in place? Absolutely.
5.) Now we get a fitting climax.
Boil away all the wild twists of another Ravens season and it feels completely fitting that this team’s story will hinge on a Christmas meeting with the Steelers.
These teams have circled one another for 15 years, and even though neither is at a historic peak, they circle one another still, with the AFC North hanging in the balance.
The Ravens have dominated the rivalry the last two years, but that doesn’t mean much going into this one. The Steelers’ balanced offense could give the Ravens fits, especially if Jimmy Smith remains unavailable because of an ankle injury. The Pittsburgh defense has also come on over the last five weeks.
The Ravens will certainly be underdogs.
And yet we said all the same things when they traveled to Heinz Field for a playoff game on Jan. 3, 2015. They won 30-17.
This will be one of the signature games on the NFL’s 2016 calendar —genuine rivals playing on a holiday afternoon in a season-turning showdown.
Regardless of the particular flaws of this Ravens team, we should enjoy the next week. It’s precisely the kind of gift we want from sports.