Lamar Jackson and the Ravens gave us a memory to hold onto for generations with their 47-42 win over the Cleveland Browns. Here are five things we learned Monday night:
When we’re telling Lamar Jackson stories in 30 years, this performance will make the opening monologue.
Sometimes, a game is so captivating, so improbable, so nerve-jangling that you don’t want to ruin it with logic. If we could just exist in those last few moments, life would be a more exhilarating thing.
The Ravens died and rolled away the stone on a chilly night in Cleveland. Then, they did it again.
With two minutes on the clock and backup quarterback Trace McSorley crumpled on the field, the Ravens seemed out of hope. Sure, they had one more down, but who would even take the ball? Jackson was nowhere to be seen after cramps weakened his throwing arm and then his magic legs. Would the Ravens’ faint playoff chances rest with wide receiver Willie Snead IV, who’d last played quarterback for Muskegon Heights High School in Michigan?
But no. Jackson, who’d watched McSorley go down from the team’s locker room, galloped back into the picture and straight onto the field without a warmup toss. He scrambled on fourth down until he spotted his good friend Marquise Brown — who had been a goat moments earlier when he whiffed on a McSorley pass — bursting open behind the Cleveland defense. If the whole thing had ended on the resulting touchdown pass, our thirst for drama would have been well-sated.
Not good enough, said Jackson’s former Heisman rival Baker Mayfield, who drove the Browns inexorably toward the opposite end zone against a tattered Ravens defense that struggled to keep 11 live bodies on the field. When Kareem Hunt punched in the touchdown after a mere 47 seconds, it seemed Jackson’s re-emergence from the abyss might be in vain.
Instead, he spit in the eye of those who say he can’t lead a comeback with his arm, completing four straight passes to put Justin Tucker in position for a 55-yard attempt. As Tucker told it after the game, he was the one person in the stadium trying not to be swept up in the drama. He simply had to go through the exhaustively practiced motions that have made him the greatest specialist of his generation. His kick, off chewed-up ground and into the winds swirling off Lake Erie, would have been good from 65.
So the Ravens survived ill-suited cleats and cramps and a bold performance from the best Browns team in 30 years. Jackson had called it a “win or go home” scenario, and his team was not ready to kiss off a season that’s been upended by injuries, a nightmarish COVID-19 outbreak and a series of gut-wrenching second-half collapses.
We may yet learn this story is not meant to end in the playoff glory that has eluded Jackson. But as much as sport is about the pursuit of gaudy rings, it’s about heightened moments that will stay with the players and fans who bore witness. The Ravens and their young leader just gave us one of those.
The Ravens are not a complete team, but they might not need to be.
In an interview the day before Monday’s game, ESPN color analyst Brian Griese predicted Ravens receivers would need to make a few big plays against man-to-man coverage. The former NFL quarterback’s analysis echoed criticism we’ve heard all season as Jackson has struggled to throw against defenses that clog the middle of the field.
This was Cleveland’s strategy, and it achieved the desired result, with Jackson completing just one pass on four targets to his wide receivers in the first half. It did not help that Browns defensive end Olivier Vernon lived in the Ravens backfield on passing downs. In the third quarter, Jackson had Snead and tight end Mark Andrews open on consecutive plays and sailed both attempts out of their reach.
Until his late-game heroics, this was not a performance to silence critics of Jackson the passer. But was it a recipe for big-game failure? Well, no, because the Ravens reverted to a core identity that sets them apart from every other NFL contender.
With Jackson weaving his read-option wizardry and running backs Gus Edwards and J.K. Dobbins bulldozing behind the blunt force of 311-pound fullback Patrick Ricard, the Ravens built a 14-point lead almost entirely without a passing game. They rolled up 231 ground-and-pound yards against a defense that had limited Derrick Henry and the Tennessee Titans to 62 the previous week. Jackson accounted for a season-high 124 of those yards on nine attempts, mixing improvised scrambles with designed darts up the middle, just as he had six days earlier against the Dallas Cowboys. With 525 rushing yards over their past two games, it’s safe to say the Ravens are back to the style they execute better than any team in the league.
In a sense, Griese was right. The Ravens would not have outlasted the Browns and a noticeably improved Mayfield if Jackson and Brown had not connected for a major pass play in the waning moments. They’ll probably need more moments like that if they’re to make a run in January. But it’s the running game that makes them special.
The Ravens are alarmingly short-handed in the secondary.
Anthony Levine Sr. had played a total of 21 defensive snaps going into the game. But the veteran special-teams ace was on the field at cornerback as the Ravens tried anything they could to blunt Cleveland’s fourth-quarter charge.
This tells us all we need to know about the shortage of able bodies in a position group that overflowed with talent just three months ago. And that’s no knock on Levine, who has served the Ravens well with his versatility.
“Just trying to get 11 guys on the field was a challenge,” coach John Harbaugh said. He laughed in disbelief, recalling how cornerback Marcus Peters ran back on the field without even alerting team trainers after he suffered a leg injury late in the game.
“We were just trying to get guys lined up,” safety Chuck Clark said.
Mayfield led touchdown drives of 70, 75 and 75 yards in the fourth quarter as the Ravens defense cracked before our eyes. Peters showed his gumption, and Marlon Humphrey played another terrific game, with two forced fumbles, a tackle for loss and a pass defended. But Jimmy Smith, who played magnificently in the first half the season, cannot stay on the field. Tramon Williams and Anthony Averett were inactive. The Ravens ran out of good options in their biggest game.
They might get away with this threadbare secondary as they face a succession of feeble offenses over the next three weeks. But come the playoffs — if they make it — they’ll need Smith, Averett or someone to step back into the breach, because what we saw on Monday night isn’t sustainable.
Tyus Bowser is making his case to be an offseason priority, and not because of his pass rushing.
As Bowser prepared for a make-or-break fourth season, we talked about him potentially joining the line of late-blooming pass rushers from Ravens past. Think Za’Darius Smith or Paul Kruger.
With two sacks on the season and none since Week 2, he hasn’t followed their path. But Bowser has done something more interesting, evolving into one of the team’s key ballhawks in coverage. His lunging third-quarter interception against Mayfield was the standout defensive play of Monday’s game, an inspired moment of athleticism that led directly to a touchdown.
“I don’t think Baker had an interception for, like five games until Tyus made his incredible play on the ball,” Harbaugh marveled. “It took a great play to make it.”
It was Bowser’s third interception in the last four games after he had one in his first three seasons. “You all have to respect this man in coverage,” fellow linebacker Matthew Judon said. “Respect him — he can rush, and he can cover. He does both, and he’s an extremely hard worker.”
The Ravens have increasingly depended on Bowser’s versatility (he also came into the game second on the team in quarterback hits) over the last month. Perhaps that unremarkable sack total will actually help them bring him back for a modest price in the offseason. He’s earned such consideration.
“I look at myself as just a football player, man,” he said in typically understated fashion. “Whatever I have to do, whether that is dropping in coverage or rushing, I’m just there to do it.”
The Ravens have put themselves in position to chase a playoff berth. Now they need help.
Harbaugh has always preached controlling what you can control and not obsessing about the rest. The Ravens crossed off the most difficult step in that quest by winning in Cleveland. But they still face the uncomfortable truth that they cannot guarantee a playoff berth simply by winning out. They could be playing better than any team in the AFC on Jan. 3 and still be forced to clean out their lockers the next morning.
The Ravens’ road to 11-5 looks quite manageable if not inevitable. They’ll be overwhelmingly favored to beat the Jacksonville Jaguars on Sunday and the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 17. Neither of these last-place teams put up much of a fight as they lost by a combined 44 points Sunday. The New York Giants will likely offer stronger resistance in Week 16 as they try to hang in the NFC East race, but we saw how they struggled to move the ball (10 first downs and 159 total yards) in their 26-7 loss to the Arizona Cardinals. The Ravens will be favored by at least a touchdown in that game as well.
Sounds pretty good, right? Well, the Ravens could outscore their last three opponents by 100 points and still, they’d need help. Their greatest problems lie outside their control.
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So what’s their best path to picking off one of the three teams ahead of them in the wild-card race? In a nifty bit of schedule poetry, the Steelers are best positioned to give the Ravens a hand. They could do it either by knocking off the Indianapolis Colts in Week 16 or the Browns in Week 17. The Ravens would hold a tiebreaker over both teams because of head-to-head victories. Those games seemed like they might be meaningless for the Steelers, but that’s less likely after Ben Roethlisberger and Co. lost their last two. Wouldn’t it be tasty if the Steelers inadvertently set up a playoff rematch with the Ravens by defeating the Colts or Browns?
The other, even cleaner, path would depend on a loss by the 8-5 Miami Dolphins. We saw the Dolphins’ virtues in a six-point loss to the top-seeded Kansas City Chiefs; they force turnovers more consistently than any team in the league, and rookie quarterback Tua Tagovailoa is maturing rapidly. But they don’t have any pushovers left on their schedule, with a home date against the New England Patriots followed by trips to Las Vegas and Buffalo.
Will the Ravens receive the assist they need from at least one of these scenarios? Probably but not surely, and this has to tug at their minds, even as they enjoy a remarkable victory.
Sunday, 1 p.m.
TV: Ch. 13 Radio: 97.9 FM, 1090 AM
Line: Ravens by 13