DENVER — By the end of a dominant win Sunday in Denver, the Ravens had put a chaotic September behind them and embraced the dawn of a calm October — for now, anyway. They are a team in transition, at once resembling the powerhouse many had predicted, but winning in ways few foresaw even two weeks ago.
Their 23-7 win over the Broncos was compelling testimony not only to what they can become over the season’s next three months, but also to what they can make other teams look like. Even undefeated teams. Even undefeated teams playing at home.
In a matchup of former Louisville quarterbacks, Lamar Jackson outdueled and outlasted Denver’s Teddy Bridgewater. He was the best player inside Empower Field at Mile High, and yet he exerted his dominance through the air, not on the ground. He finished 22-for-37 for 316 yards — his second career 300-yard game — had a highlight-reel touchdown throw to wide receiver Marquise “Hollywood” Brown and added seven carries for just 28 yards.
The Ravens trailed for just four minutes all game, and their defense played as if it could’ve held a lead for four days. The Broncos (3-1) finished with a season-low 254 yards, more than a quarter of which came on a meaningless late drive. And while the Ravens’ still-hobbled secondary shined, it was a resurgent pass rush that was most impactful, finishing with six sacks and 10 quarterback hits and knocking Bridgewater out of the game late in the second quarter.
The Ravens’ first three weeks had made their fourth week hard to predict. They left Denver with their third straight victory and best performance to date, a dominant win far from home defying expectations and perhaps raising them for the weeks to come.
“A very, very good win,” coach John Harbaugh said. “A tough win over a very tough football team. ... You’ve got to stack in order to do anything. This is a very meaningful win for our guys, and I’m very proud of our guys for this victory.”
After a chaotic, choose-your-own-adventure September, the Ravens kept things mostly comfortable in Week 4. There were no dueling last-minute field goals or goal-line stands, as there had been in a season-opening overtime loss to the Las Vegas Raiders. There were no game-swinging turnovers or fourth-down calls, as there had been in a comeback win over the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 2. No NFL-record field goals, either, as there had been in a victory over the Detroit Lions last week.
For much of Sunday, the Ravens made the Broncos look more like the New York Giants, Jacksonville Jaguars and New York Jets, the lowly opponents Denver had trounced to open the season. They outgained them by 152 yards, outpossessed them by more than six minutes and headed home for a “Monday Night Football” matchup against the hobbled Indianapolis Colts with a 3-1 record that belies their significant injury toll.
For all of the Ravens’ big stats Sunday — outside linebacker Tyus Bowser had two sacks, Brown had four catches for 91 yards, and wide receiver James Proche II had five grabs for a career-high 74 yards — their game was seldom pretty. That was by design.
The second half, especially, became a war of attrition. Bridgewater, who entered Week 4 as one of the NFL’s most accurate passers (76.8% completion rate), was knocked out of the game on his final play of the first half, absorbing a crunching blow from Ravens rookie outside linebacker Odafe Oweh on a third-and-long misfire. He was evaluated for a concussion and ruled out with his worst stat line of the season: 7-for-16 for 65 yards and a touchdown.
Drew Lock, a 2019 second-round pick who started 13 games last season and lost the preseason battle to the newcomer Bridgewater, wasn’t much better. He finished 12-for-21 for 113 yards and threw an interception to cornerback Anthony Averett on his final pass.
According to Football Outsiders, the Broncos had the NFL’s fifth-most efficient offense through three games, and the Ravens just the 20th. On this day, though, it was clear which unit was superior.
“We just focused on ourselves,” Bowser said after helping to hold Denver to 4.3 yards per play. “We just stayed with our business and what we’ve got going on. Whenever we’re out there, we just want to execute, play together and just have fun out there, man. We don’t really care what happens outside of the group that we have.”
The Ravens have avoided injury problems at quarterback. That hasn’t helped their slim margin for error at a snakebitten position. When left tackle Alejandro Villanueva limped off the field in the third quarter with a knee injury, which Harbaugh said was “nothing serious,” the Ravens turned to the team’s emergency option.
Andre Smith hadn’t even made the 53-man roster, but with Ronnie Stanley (ankle), Tyre Phillips (knee) and Villanueva out, the Ravens had no other choice but the 34-year-old practice squad player who’d sat out all of last season. While his fourth-quarter face-mask penalty cost Jackson a 30-yard touchdown pass to tight end Mark Andrews, the Ravens persevered. They salvaged a 46-yard field goal from the drive for a 20-7 lead, and kicker Justin Tucker knocked his third field goal through 12 minutes later.
The Ravens played all Sunday like they were hungry for more, even after the game was wrapped up. Jackson’s 5-yard carry on the game’s final play extended the team’s streak of 100-plus rushing yards to 43 games, tying an NFL record established in the mid-1970s by the Pittsburgh Steelers. Their offense finished with 30 carries for 102 yards (3.4 per carry), but the out-of-character output didn’t matter much.
“I’m just happy we got the ‘dub,’ " Jackson said when asked about the streak. “I wasn’t thinking about that. I was just thinking about winning the game.”
The Ravens’ preparation for Denver began with an acknowledgment: Fundamentally, things could be better. On Wednesday, the Ravens headed out for their first practice in pads. Poor tackling had cost them over and over again against Detroit. “We just have to get a lot better at it,” Harbaugh said before the game. “We’re all very determined to get it done.”
There were flashes of bad form in Denver, too, but not many. On a 31-yard run to the Ravens’ 9-yard line, rookie running back Javonte Williams bounced off cornerback Tavon Young at the line of scrimmage, slipped between rookie safety Brandon Stephens and Bowser, then took cornerback Marlon Humphrey for a ride, nearly 20 yards on his back.
Three plays later, on third-and-goal from the Ravens’ 3, Bridgewater found tight end Noah Fant open in the end zone on a pick play. It was too late to stop him, or an easy score.
The Ravens’ terrific second quarter looked nothing like their turgid first quarter (44 total yards, two first downs). Not just in terms of execution, but in terms of approach, too. They’d opened the game in heavy personnel groupings, perhaps hoping to diminish Denver’s strength in the back end with a run-heavy approach.
When that didn’t work, the Ravens spread things out, all while keeping the threat of their running game alive. On their first scoring drive, Jackson found Andrews on back-to-back completions for a combined 36 yards before running back Latavius Murray cruised in from 11 yards, his path cleared by fullback Patrick Ricard.
The Ravens’ next touchdown was even more emphatic. On second-and-10, Jackson dropped back, all the time in the world to throw. Brown was streaking downfield. His diving 49-yard catch in the end zone silenced, however briefly, the booming criticism of his hands after a two-drop game in Detroit — and marked a career long for Jackson. According to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats, Jackson’s deep shot traveled 60.8 yards in the air, Jackson’s longest completion of his career and the second longest by any quarterback this season.
“Ain’t drop it,” Brown said with a smile after the game.
“I can’t believe people said he couldn’t throw,” Proche said of Jackson. “Like, that’s wild. Like, barbaric. That’s like saying water’s dry. It’s crazy, man.”
Devin Duvernay’s 42-yard punt return late in the second quarter put the Ravens at Denver’s 26-yard line just before halftime, but the Ravens settled for a 40-yard field goal and a 17-7 lead at halftime. Jackson already had more passing yards (184) than Denver had allowed per game (162.3) over three comfortable wins.
They had set themselves up, finally, for a mild fourth quarter. And perhaps a big-time October.
Next Monday, 8:15 p.m.
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Line: Ravens by 6 1/2