The Ravens were five points from victory in their last loss of 2017, two points away in their second-to-last loss and four points away in their third-to-last loss. Their postseason fate hinged on losses in toss-up games, where the flip of a coin seemed to come up heads whenever they’d call tails.
The accepted wisdom in the NFL, passed down from Bill Parcells, is that you are what your record says you are, and the Ravens finished last season 9-7. But rarely had a team ended the year out of the playoffs with such a strong cumulative track record. With a point differential of plus-92, the Ravens became just the eighth team since 1990 with a differential of at least plus-90 to miss the postseason, according to Football Outsiders.
Their mark was better than the AFC West champion Kansas City Chiefs’ (plus-76). It was just six points behind the AFC North champion Pittsburgh Steelers’ (plus-98). And it perhaps explained why the Ravens were matter-of-fact in their appraisal of their 47-3 win Sunday against the Buffalo Bills.
Style points might count for something in college football, but not in the NFL.
“Winning the game is the most significant thing, but obviously, there are other things that are involved, too,” quarterback Joe Flacco said after the team’s third-largest margin of victory in franchise history. “It’s definitely good for us to go out there as a team and as an offense, speaking as the quarterback, to have the kind of game we did, for sure.
“If we didn’t score 40 points, and we scored 25 and we still won, it’s the same outcome, but there’s something to be said about going out there and playing the way we did today.”
Given the Ravens’ 2017, it’s hard to divine what Sunday’s win says about their chances in Thursday night’s game against the Cincinnati Bengals (1-0). The Ravens laid waste to the notion of momentum last year.
After opening their season with a shutout win in Cincinnati, they beat the Cleveland Browns by a narrower but still-comfortable margin at M&T Bank Stadium, scoring at least 20 points in each game. Then they didn't show up in their 37-point loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars in London, or for much of their 17-point home loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers, in which they scored a combined 16 points.
But the Ravens hadn't gone truly batty yet. Over the season's dozen final games, they followed both of their biggest victories with losses. They went from a 40-0 win over the Miami Dolphins in Week 8 to a 23-20 loss to the Tennessee Titans in Week 9. In Week 13, a 44-20 win over the Detroit Lions; a week later, a 39-38 loss to the Steelers. Eventually, bad execution won out over good feelings.
If there was anything the Ravens could take away from their preseason, besides their relatively intact roster, it was that they won with ease throughout. They led the AFC with a plus-55 point differential over five games, behind only the New Orleans Saints (plus-56 in four games) in the overall NFL standings.
On Sunday, the Ravens made good on their promise of a more well-rounded team. Flacco finished with his best passer rating in four years. The defense held the Bills without a first down for the first half. And their special teams were as reliable as ever, with Janarion Grant even adding a long punt return for good measure.
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“A win in the NFL, you never take that for granted,” safety Tony Jefferson said Sunday. “Never do. And to win in the fashion that we did, you never take that for granted as well. I don't care who you're playing. I don't care who's out. This is the NFL. Everybody is professional. So when you're able to come out and dominate like that, it's very good to see.”
Las Vegas doesn’t expect Week 2 to be anything close to a rerun of Week 1 — most sportsbooks had the Ravens as a one-point favorite over Cincinnati as of Monday night — and neither do the Ravens. Wide receiver Willie Snead IV said “Thursday isn’t going to be like that, and that’s what we’re going to prepare for.”
The Bills were something of a wild card entering the season opener, having entrusted the inexperienced Nathan Peterman with first-year coordinator Brian Daboll’s offense. The Bengals, even with former Ravens secondary coach Teryl Austin in his first year overseeing the team’s defense, are more of a known quantity.
Andy Dalton had nearly 250 yards on 75 percent passing in Cincinnati's 34-23 win Sunday over the Indianapolis Colts. Second-year running back Joe Mixon averaged 5.6 yards per carry. Wide receiver A.J. Green and tight end Tyler Eifert combined for nine catches and 136 yards. Defensive tackle Geno Atkins had a pair of tackles for loss. It’s nothing the Ravens haven’t seen on tape before.
Harbaugh also knows that won’t make it any easier to stop. The Ravens’ short work week means they had only enough time Monday for a brief review of Sunday’s win. Then it was on to the Bengals’ strengths and weaknesses, searching for momentum in the matchups.
Was there any lesson to be learned from last season’s roller-coaster ride, from following a big win with a frustrating loss? Harbaugh said there wasn’t. He hadn’t even considered it.
“I couldn’t care less about that,” Harbaugh said. “If there’s a relevance to it, I’m not aware of it, and I wouldn't know what conclusion to draw from it. So if some sports psychologist has something for me, though, I'm all ears. It'd be great to hear.”