On the Buffalo Bills’ eighth possession of the first half Sunday, a first down seemed finally within grasp, if only because nothing else was. They trailed the Ravens 26-0, and they were 55 yards from the end zone, and they had five seconds to do something before entering halftime of a game that already was lost.
But the Bills could not get a first down. Or rather, the Ravens would not let them. A pass from quarterback Nathan Peterman to tight end Jason Croom led him to the sideline, and Croom stepped out 2 yards short of the sticks, ushered there by linebacker Patrick Onwuasor. In the Ravens’ opening act of a crucial season, in securing the third-largest margin of victory in team history, they introduced a defense that was equally terrifying and historic.
In a 47-3 win at M&T Bank Stadium that featured the Joe Flacco of Ravens fans’ dreams, there was no more impressive performance than that by the Ravens defense. Especially in the first half: They held Buffalo to 33 total yards. Peterman turned in a microscopic 8.2 passer rating. Running back LeSean Mccoy finished with 3 rushing yards. And the offense was held without a first down for the first time since 2001. The Ravens have allowed fewer yards in a first half only once; it was their Super Bowl XXXV team that did it in 2000.
Even more impressive, the Ravens did not let up. Peterman’s passer rating actually worsened upon his return to the field, finishing at 0.0 after he finished 5-for-18 for 24 yards and two interceptions. Bills running backs totaled just 56 yards. And the offense was outgained 369-153, so thoroughly outclassed that coach Sean McDermott called the unit’s discombobulation “a full, total team effort there.”
“Whatever they threw at us, we are able to answer,” said outside linebacker Terrell Suggs, one of five Ravens who finished with a sack. “We just executed on defense. It’s the first game. We did some good things.”
The closest Buffalo got to heating up were the bursts of flames that accompanied the Ravens defense’s pregame introductions. Their ensuing dominance was conventional — this was a healthy group playing at home and in weather that had many of the announced 70,591 in attendance swaddled in ponchos and raincoats — but their methods were in some ways atypical.
Slot cornerback Tavon Young had two sacks in the first quarter. With Jimmy Smith suspended, second-year rising star Marlon Humphrey and wily veteran Brandon Carr were the new lock-down cornerbacks. There were no early-season jitters from a unit that had folded late in its last meaningful appearance, a Week 17 loss last year to the Cincinnati Bengals that doomed the Ravens to their third straight postseason absence.
An airtight defense can get the Ravens to the playoffs, but the Flacco who showed up Sunday resembled the one who led the franchise to its last Super Bowl berth. He was the one who coaches and teammates, all preseason long, had said was capable of days like this.
The offense was not the picture of efficiency in Flacco’s hands — the Ravens had four three-and-outs over his two-plus quarters of work — but the passing game did not look like it had been pieced together over the offseason. Wide receivers Willie Snead IV (four catches for 49 yards), John Brown (three catches for 44 yards) and Michael Crabtree (three catches for 38 yards) all marked their regular-season debut in Baltimore with a touchdown catch.
“It’s a fun day,” said Flacco (25-for-34 for 236 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions), whose passer rating of 121.7 was his highest since Week 6 of the 2014 season. “When everybody can get that feeling of being in the end zone and we’re all celebrating together, it’s a good feeling.”
The Ravens did not even need much from rookie Lamar Jackson, the team’s pick Sunday for Flacco’s backup, not Robert Griffin III. Before coming in for mop-up duty midway through the third quarter, Jackson was mostly a decoy. He had a razzle-dazzle pass play fall incomplete and a read-option keeper go nowhere, but he was otherwise content to let the Ravens offense — and defense, of course — go to work.
Running back Alex Collins (seven carries for 13 yards) opened the scoring just over six minutes into the game, tackled across the goal line by teammate and offensive tackle Ronnie Stanley on an 8-yard carry that capped the opening possession. Two possessions later, Flacco found Brown wide open in the back of the end zone for a 7-yard score. He had said he wasn’t any more excited for this opener than any other, but his full-body spasm of excitement was notable for a Joe Cool celebration.
A pair of field goals in the second quarter from kicker Justin Tucker stretched the Ravens’ lead to 20-0 with 4:20 remaining, and Crabtree’s acrobatic, last-minute catch in the corner of the end zone, just managing to get two feet inbounds, gave Ravens fans even less reason to return after halftime.
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“I thought Joe did a great job of distributing the football,” Harbaugh said. “A lot of different guys touched the ball. A lot of different guys scored. I really thought a lot of different guys made key plays for us.”
The defense made so many, it was difficult to see that Buffalo hadn’t even gotten a first down until the first play from scrimmage of the second half. “We knew we kept getting off the field, obviously,” Eric Weddle said, but the Bills’ streak was otherwise lost on him and fellow safety Tony Jefferson.
Even Buffalo’s third-quarter breakthrough yielded nothing. After a 12-yard gain by McCoy, the drive ended there, and the Ravens got the ball back after Buffalo’s implosion reached its special teams’ stick of dynamite. Punter Corey Bojorquez’s fumble of a perfectly good snap led the Ravens to take over at the Bills’ 14-yard line. After Snead’s offensive pass interference wiped out an easy touchdown catch for tight end Nick Boyle, Flacco’s next pass was a score, too, a 13-yard slant to Snead.
“We’ve had some good [defensive performances] the last couple years,” Weddle said. “But it was just — all three phases were clicking.”
Before long, the Ravens handed their quarterbacking duties to Jackson, and the Bills theirs to first-round pick Josh Allen. The strong-armed Buffalo rookie was better than Peterman, but only marginally so, and how much could be attributed to the Ravens’ interest and defensive substitutions was open to interpretation. When the Bills finally scored with three minutes remaining in the third quarter, rookie linebacker Kenny Young said he was upset the shutout had been ruined.
His veteran teammates were more measured in their expectations. Suggs called it a “good start” but cautioned: “It’s never as good as you think it is. It’s never as bad as you think it is.” Flacco said the team should be excited but only for so long; it’s a short week, with just three days off between Sunday’s win and Thursday night’s game against the Cincinnati Bengals. And Jefferson, when asked to explain the team’s tempered optimism, recalled how a win’s promise can fade quickly.
“Last year, we had a shutout first game, too,” he said, referencing the Ravens' 20-0 win in Week 1 over the host Bengals. “And we missed out on our goal of making the playoffs. So after tonight, this one's over with. It's on to Cincinnati.”