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With run to playoffs, Ravens earn a fresh start — and a shot at redemption

Baltimore Ravens rookie running back J.K. Dobbins shares his thoughts on making the playoffs.

These Ravens are not those Ravens, and it didn’t take until the first Sunday of 2021 for that to become self-evident. The 2019 Ravens had the AFC’s top seed secured by Week 17, 13 Pro Bowl selections, a franchise-record winning streak; the 2020 Ravens entered Cincinnati’s Paul Brown Stadium needing a win just to get back to the playoffs, to prolong this season of high drama.

But after a Sunday that thrust their promising future into a head-on collision with their dreary past, this next week in Baltimore will be a Petri dish for comparisons. In a 38-3 dismantling of the Bengals, the Ravens (11-5) looked every bit the Super Bowl contender they’d been considered last year, running wild and conceding little, star quarterback Lamar Jackson lounging on the sideline, a confident and competent team behind him.

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These Ravens’ next challenge is one those Ravens couldn’t solve. Their third straight postseason trip will take them Sunday to Tennessee, where a rematch with Derrick Henry and the AFC South champion Titans (11-5) awaits in the wild-card round, their third meeting in less than a year.

In winning five straight games to end the regular season, the Ravens overcame injuries and infections, prime-time shootouts and late-season uncertainty. Now they’ll have to reckon with the opponent that’s revealed the worst version of themselves. And they’ll do it after a performance that showed why the Titans — or any of the 12 other playoff teams still standing — might have preferred not to face the Ravens.

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“It’s never what you say; it’s what you do,” said Ravens coach John Harbaugh, who became just the 10th coach in NFL history to reach the playoffs nine times in his first 13 seasons. After a day in which the Ravens had set a franchise record for rushing and allowed just 48 passing yards, he reached for a quote from poet and writer Ralph Waldo Emerson: “What you do speaks so loudly, I can’t hear what you’re saying.”

Harbaugh explained: “I do believe that our guys have reflected that bit of wisdom. So if that’s the case, so be it. But we understand that we have to look forward. The thing we’ve done is, we’ve looked ahead all the way. We haven’t looked back. We haven’t looked left. We haven’t looked right. We’ve looked straight ahead at the next challenge, and that’s what is in front of us right now. That’s what we need to do now.”

As the Ravens push for their first playoff win since 2014, they’ve found little weighing them down. Since Jackson returned from his bout with COVID-19 in Week 13, the team has more than doubled up its opponents, outscoring the Dallas Cowboys, Cleveland Browns, Jacksonville Jaguars, New York Giants and Bengals (4-11-1) by a combined 186-89. Entering Sunday night, only six teams outside Baltimore had a bigger point differential for the whole season.

After a midseason stretch in which a postseason run seemed like a fantasy, the Ravens are making it easy to dream big again. Their offense is doing things last season’s record-setting attack never approached. Even with Jackson sitting out the fourth quarter, center Patrick Mekari ailing, and top blockers Ronnie Stanley and Nick Boyle on injured reserve, the Ravens ran as if they’d changed the game’s difficulty level, rolling for 404 yards on 54 carries. Only three teams since 1950 had eclipsed 400 yards in a single game.

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“And to be honest, I feel like we could still take another step,” said rookie running back J.K. Dobbins, who had a team-high 13 carries for 160 yards. His 72-yard touchdown run extended the Ravens’ third-quarter lead over a Cincinnati team that had won two straight to 35 points. “But it’s great to be on this team.”

Especially with how the defense is shaping up. This is not a vintage Bengals offense, not with top overall draft pick Joe Burrow and starting running back Joe Mixon injured, not with star rookie Tee Higgins missing most of the game and fellow wide receiver A.J. Green showing his age.

Still, the Ravens didn’t take it easy, didn’t kick their legs up and study the out-of-town scoreboard. They did what they had to. For the third straight game, they held the opposing offense under 270 yards. Cincinnati finished with 195 yards overall, the fewest the Ravens have allowed all season. Quarterback Brandon Allen (6-for-21 for 48 yards and two interceptions) finished with a 0.0 passer rating, the worst mark for a quarterback with at least 20 attempts this season. Of the Bengals’ 11 drives, just three lasted longer than three plays.

And by next week, an already good Ravens defense could be even more stingy, as close to the version in coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale’s dreams as it’s been in a while. On Sunday, he got back cornerback Marcus Peters, who added another interception to his team-high total in his first game since Week 14. Just as encouraging, Harbaugh said afterward that there’s a “good chance” that injured defensive end Yannick Ngakoue and cornerback Jimmy Smith return for the playoffs.

“We just know we can play lights-out football,” said safety Chuck Clark, who had the Ravens’ other interception. “We’re just going to take it one week at a time. And [if] everybody’s locked in and doing their job, the sky is the limit for us.”

That was their refrain last season, too, when it seemed as if only the Ravens’ imagination and generosity could limit their dominance.

A Week 17 win over a desperate Pittsburgh Steelers team marked their 12th in a row, and it didn’t require one snap from Jackson or guard Marshal Yanda or defensive tackle Brandon Williams, among others. The Ravens entered the playoffs with a first-round bye, the NFL’s most efficient offense (both rushing and passing, according to Football Outsiders) and a secondary that hadn’t allowed more than 207 yards passing in over two months.

They were Super Bowl favorites, and rightfully so. Then their championship dreams crumbled amid a torrent of bad bounces, ill-timed injuries and Titans stiff arms. A 28-12 loss in Baltimore ushered in an offseason of reinvestment. A 30-24 overtime defeat in Week 11 this season, the nadir of a November swoon, suggested that the Ravens’ efforts were for naught.

From that three-game losing streak, though, from a massive coronavirus outbreak that upended their roster, the Ravens have emerged a different team. Maybe not quite the team they were in 2019, but one hardened by adversity, more attuned to their strengths and weaknesses than in September, more desperate. Ravens players have repeatedly spoken of their playoff mentality; they are by now well accustomed to do-or-die games.

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“People doubted us a lot throughout the season because we weren’t having the year that we had last year, but it’s ‘any given Sunday,’ and our team fought through that, and we showed the world we’re here to play,” said Jackson (113 passing yards, 97 rushing yards and three touchdowns), who became the first quarterback in NFL history to twice rush for 1,000 yards in a single season. “And we’ve just got to keep it going.”

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In their way are obstacles both real and imagined. Jackson is 30-7 as a starter but 0-2 in the playoffs, both coming on higher-seeded Ravens teams. The Titans have one of the NFL’s best offenses, and the last somewhat potent attack the Ravens faced, the Cleveland Browns’, put up 42 points and almost 500 yards on them in Week 14. What happens if the Ravens’ run game goes nowhere? Or if their defense needs six pass rushers to collapse the pocket?

After last year’s flameout, every question is an important one, every hurdle a little more imposing. No, the 2020 Ravens are not the 2019 Ravens. And maybe that’s a good thing.

“Man, we’re not worried about last year,” outside linebacker Matthew Judon said. “If we could get last year back, we would go back to last year. I don’t know why you all want to continue to talk about it. We’re in 2021. Last year is last year, and right now is right now. Whoever we get, and whenever the time slot we get them, we have to be ready to play them.”

Wild-card round

RAVENS@TITANS

Sunday, 1 p.m.

TV: Chs. 2, 7, ESPN

Radio: 97.9 FM, 1090 AM

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