In the National Football League, December is the month where the serious playoff contenders separate themselves from the rest of the teams, and the Ravens game Sunday in Kansas City against the Chiefs will be the actual launch point.
The Ravens have won three straight against Cincinnati, Oakland and Atlanta; all games in which they were favored and against teams with losing records.
But now they are back in the big league against Kansas City, a team in the upper echelon of the NFL with only two defeats in 12 games. The two losses came against the Los Angeles Rams (11-1) and New England Patriots (9-3).
Where does that leave the Ravens? We’ll get a true barometer Sunday.
We’ve been down this road before with the Ravens during the last three or four seasons. They go undefeated in the preseason, which is good but meaningless. They usually beat the teams they are supposed to beat but then can’t clinch a playoff spot because they lose in the final one or two games of the regular season.
That’s why there is guarded optimism around this team over the current winning streak. They played teams with poor defenses, especially against the run, which is why there hasn’t been more passionate interest in this team. That’s probably why there are still about 10,000 empty seats for every home game.
But a win against the Chiefs, who have the No. 3 offense in the NFL, can create a legitimacy and excitement about this team.
A strong defensive effort would show that this unit would be able to carry the Ravens into the postseason and possibly deeper. All season there had been signs that this group could become good until the unit was victimized for three straight weeks in losses to New Orleans, Carolina and Pittsburgh.
But last week the Ravens shut down Atlanta’s offense in a 26-16 win as the Ravens held one of the league’s top trio of receivers — Mohamed Sanu, Calvin Ridley, Julio Jones — to eight catches for 96 yards.
Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan completed only 16 of 26 passes for 131 yards and one touchdown. The Ravens defense, ranked No. 1, probably can’t slow down Kansas City as much but a strong showing would say a lot about this team.
Kansas City is averaging 437.2 yards per game. Chiefs receivers Tyreek Hill and Sammy Watkins and quarterback Patrick Mahomes are a notch above what Atlanta had to offer.
“In reality, holding this team to what we did last [week] is probably not going to happen,” Ravens safety Eric Weddle said of the Chiefs. “But we can make things tough on them. We can create turnovers. We can hold them in the red zone. So, those things are areas that we can do, and if we do that, we’ll be successful.”
“It is going to be a challenge for us, but we’re up for it and excited to go out there into a great atmosphere, playoff-style game,” he said. “A lot is riding on this game. They can’t afford a loss. Obviously, we can’t, so it’s going to be a fun battle for us.”
The Ravens cornerbacks did a nice job of being physical with Atlanta’s receivers, especially Jimmy Smith and Marlon Humphrey. That was a problem area in previous games against some of the better receivers they’ve faced this season. If they continue to play well, it would help a defense that hasn’t always gotten consistent pressure on the quarterback.
Meanwhile, the Ravens offense is still in flux. Head coach John Harbaugh likes to call it a work in progress, but it’s a mess. It’s just organized chaos, where rookie quarterback Lamont Jackson has the ability to make plays with his arm or his legs, but his legs appear to be a better option.
The Ravens rushed 49 times for 207 yards against Atlanta with Jackson running 17 times for 75 yards. This strategy has worked for several weeks against teams that can’t stop the run. The Chiefs are slightly better than the Ravens previous opponents and Kansas City scores a lot of points.
Can Jackson’s arm carry the Ravens if it needs to?
A similar question was asked last week of Jackson in Atlanta. But this will be a different scenario in Kansas City. Unlike Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, Kansas City’s Arrowhead Stadium will be packed with Chiefs fans. The Chiefs front office probably still plays music from the 1960s and 1970s in between plays, and Kansas City is playing for home-field advantage in the playoffs.
They aren’t going to quit in the third quarter like the Falcons did last week. The Ravens are back on center stage. We’ve seen some of the newfound energy and magic against the bad teams in the NFL. Now, let’s see if they can win against one of the better teams.
If not, we might be in for the same old tired, frustrating ending.