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Baltimore Ravens

Ravens refuse to dwell on 2021 collapse as they fight to hold their playoff position: ‘It’s a new year’

Don’t bother pointing out the similarities to the 2022 Ravens. They don’t want to hear it.

They’re in lockstep with coach John Harbaugh, who declared death to all narratives after they stole a 10-9 victory from the Denver Broncos last weekend. It’s bunker time. Only the next game matters.

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But we have to talk about it, right?

The Ravens are 8-4, leading the AFC North by a tiebreaker over the Cincinnati Bengals. Twelve months ago they were also 8-4, up a game on Cincinnati.

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They just watched Lamar Jackson, the straw that stirs their drink, limp off the field with a knee injury that Harbaugh deemed not season-ending. It was Week 13 last year when Jackson hobbled off with an ankle injury. Though Harbaugh held out hope he might return, he did not play another snap over the Ravens’ last four games.

We’re not done. The Ravens’ offense was in a rut before Jackson’s injury last season. They had scored 10, 16, 16 and 19 points in their previous four games, with their franchise quarterback operating skittishly behind a patched-together offensive line. They’re similarly stalled right now, with the league’s 24th-most efficient offense over the last three weeks (down from fourth over the first 10 weeks), according to Football Outsiders’ DVOA.

So now, the big question: We know the 2021 Ravens crashed out of the playoff picture with six straight losses to end their season; are they doomed to a similar fate in 2022?

Players, whether they were present for the previous collapse or not, had little use for this line of inquiry as they prepared for their next test Sunday against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

“It’s a new year,” said linebacker Patrick Queen, who lived through the 2021 horror. “We don’t dwell on the past. Yes, we talked about it early in the season, trying not to make those same mistakes we did last year. But honestly, it’s a new season, time to get all that talk out of here and do what we’re supposed to do this year.”

Ravens inside linebacker Patrick Queen celebrates during a game against the Steelers on Dec. 5, 2021 in Pittsburgh. “It’s a new year,” said Queen, who was part of a team that lost six straight to end last season. “We don’t dwell on the past."

“I think we’re a whole different team,” said right tackle Morgan Moses, who signed with the Ravens in the offseason to be part of the solution. “I can’t speak on last year’s team, but I just think about the men and the coaches that we have in this building today. I think we’re prepared for this.”

There are plenty of reasons — better health, easier schedule, sheer defensive talent — to think Queen and Moses are correct.

When Jackson went down last year, he was just the most prominent addition to an already-overcrowded injury ward. The Ravens were playing without left tackle Ronnie Stanley, cornerbacks Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters, running backs J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards and starting safety DeShon Elliott. The list went on and on. With the talent drain, their pass defense went from bad in the first half of the season to worst in the league in the second half.

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Regardless of what’s happening on offense, their defensive cupboard is far better stocked a year later. Humphrey and Peters are playing almost every snap. First-round pick Kyle Hamilton is in the picture as a capable cover man and thumping run stopper from the nickel spot. Queen has blossomed, and he’s now paired with one of the league’s most fearsome running back hunters in trade acquisition Roquan Smith. Marcus Williams, the Ravens’ top offseason addition, is set to return on the back end. Key veterans Justin Houston and Calais Campbell are sharing work in deep edge and interior rotations, respectively, so they’re fresher.

Safety Chuck Clark sees no comparison between the current defense and the one that limped home 12 months ago: “Last year, we had a lot of guys down and just injuries. That’s part of the game, but this year, guys are healthy, and we have a lot of bodies out there. We can rotate guys in and out, and there’s almost no lapse out there.”

Houston even suggested the Ravens are better off being a defense-first team, something they never were last year.

The 2021 roster fell apart just in time for a relentless slate of December and January opponents. Over the Ravens’ last six games, they played one team, the Cleveland Browns, that did not end up in playoffs. The Green Bay Packers would earn the NFC’s top seed. The Bengals and Los Angeles Rams would meet in the Super Bowl.

This year’s finishing run will not be a cakewalk, especially if Jackson remains absent, but the Ravens will play just one more game against a team with a current winning record. Their remaining schedule is 16th-hardest in the league, per Football Outsiders.

Can they pick off the two more wins they will probably need to secure a playoff berth? Almost every projection system is bullish on their chances, with FiveThirtyEight giving them an 86% likelihood, ESPN a 94.9% likelihood and Football Outsiders a 91% likelihood. Of course, those same systems said they were good to go at this time last year.

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Fair or not, the pressure to ward off another disaster will fall heavily on backup quarterback Tyler Huntley’s shoulders, much as it did in 2021. Huntley was 1-3 as a starter last year, and the Ravens also lost their Week 13 game against the Browns after he relieved Jackson in the first quarter. But is it fair to write off the way he and they finished the season as a pure failure?

Ravens quarterback Tyler Huntley keeps the ball to score late in the fourth quarter during a game against the Packers at M&T Bank Stadium last season.

As we’ve established, they played a gnarly schedule with a depleted roster. But Huntley threw two touchdown passes and ran for two more scores to rally them within a failed two-point conversion of possibly upsetting the Packers. He fought though five sacks to build a five-point lead against the eventual Super Bowl champion Rams before they caught the Ravens in the last minute. He led the offense to 249 rushing yards in a season-closing overtime loss to the Steelers.

The final results were what they were, but Huntley built capital with his teammates over this stretch. That’s part of the reason they trust him so readily now, as he steps in for Jackson with the season hanging in the balance.

“Last year, we had been through a bunch of different things and adversity, and I think that’s made us stronger,” tight end Mark Andrews said. “Last year is going to make us better for this year. [Tyler has] got a bunch of experience, a lot of guys that played with him, got a bunch of reps, got a bunch of chemistry with him. I’m excited for his opportunity.”

The Ravens will face a whole new set of questions if they hang on to their playoff spot and line up against the AFC’s best under loser-leaves-town conditions. But they’re in no position to get ahead of themselves.

“That’s never really been our motto, to finish so poorly, like we did last year, so I think everybody’s mindset is pretty refreshing this week,” Humphrey said Thursday. “We’re trying to make sure no stone is left unturned. It’s crazy when you say five weeks, because I didn’t really realize it’s around the same time. But we’re trying to not let that happen again.”

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Week 14

Ravens at Steelers

Sunday, 1 p.m.

TV: Chs. 13, 9

Radio: 97.9 FM, 101.5 FM, 1090 AM

Line: Steelers by 2 1/2


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