From C.J. Mosley's well-deserved moment of heroism to the Ravens' potential for a deep playoff run, here are five things we learned from their victory over the Cleveland Browns.
The game-clinching interception could not have found a more deserving pair of hands than those of C.J. Mosley.
Mosley was all set to blitz Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield on the decisive play of the game, but at the last second, he stopped in his tracks, guessing the rookie might throw a check-down pass.
His instinct was true, and as teammates piled on him in the moments after his interception, the linebacker experienced a joy as pure as any he’s felt in five NFL seasons.
“Yeah man, when you do something great and the whole city and the whole team is behind you, there’s no better feeling,” Mosley said. “At the end of the day, we deserved it. All the things we’ve been through all year, the ups and downs of the season, the naysayers out there, all the people on social media who said I can’t cover.”
It’s not hard to find fans who question Mosley’s value as he approaches free agency at the end of this season. Perhaps they measure him against the incomparable Ray Lewis or dwell on his unremarkable sack and interception totals.
Understand this, however: There’s not a more admired person in the organization than Mosley. He plays through persistent injuries without complaining. He takes on every interview request. He serves as a role model to players who aren’t much younger than he is, according to the calendar.
Mosley had felt the agony of the Ravens’ failed defensive stands at the end of 2016 and 2017 as acutely as anyone. As the leader at the heart of the operation, he took responsibility, even if he was not directly at fault.
On Sunday, with a chance to change the story, he led the Ravens with six tackles (one for loss), defended two passes and was the smartest guy on the field at the deciding moment.
“Awesome,” said Ravens defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale, who’s been Mosley’s most outspoken champion. “Isn’t it fitting with everything we talked about all year long? It was awesome.”
Lamar Jackson giveth and he taketh away, but let’s remember he’s a rookie who’s transcended any reasonable expectations.
Jackson made several unbelievable cuts — moves you only see from the greatest running backs and wide receivers — as the Ravens rampaged all over the Browns for much of the first half. You could see the depth of his confidence as he lifted his finger in celebration before he crossed the goal line on a 25-yard burst up the middle in the first quarter.
He also made a few terrific throws, including a clutch first-down strike to tight end Mark Andrews (again his favorite target with four catches for 54 yards) while he was scampering away from pressure.
He also cost the Ravens a chance to put the game away before halftime, when he extended the ball toward the goal line on an attempted sneak. That’s 11 fumbles on the season now, a number for which Jackson chastised himself after the game (he quipped that he might work with the Jugs machine, like his wide receivers).
The Ravens scored a touchdown just once on four red-zone trips, an ongoing problem for the Jackson-led offense. Their running sets become less potent without space to operate, and Jackson’s imprecision as a passer further limits their options.
He’ll need to become more efficient if the Ravens hope to string together playoff victories.
Now let’s take a deep breath and remember that this is a 21-year-old who just made his seventh NFL start with a franchise’s playoff ambitions resting squarely on his shoulders. Let’s take it another step and recognize that most analysts thought he’d be a pure developmental project this season.
In that context, Jackson’s run over the past seven games has been remarkable. His resilience and gift for drawing people together — along with the possibilities created by his electric running ability — have become essential to the identity of an NFL division champion. “A special, special person,” Weddle called him.
Keep that in mind, even as you cringe at his inevitable failings.
The Ravens showed troubling vulnerability on the back end.
They came in with the No. 1 defense in the NFL largely because they’ve stifled home-run plays all year. But Browns receivers — including former Ravens draft bust Breshad Perriman — glided by the Baltimore secondary all afternoon. Four different Cleveland players caught a pass of 38 yards or longer.
Mayfield deserved plenty of credit for that because he kept plays alive by scrambling and threw downfield with abandon. But the Ravens also lapsed in coverage more regularly than they had in weeks, perhaps all season. The numbers could have been even worse if a potential 93-yard touchdown pass had not bounced off Jarvis Landry’s helmet just before halftime.
On several deep completions, slot cornerback Tavon Young looked perplexed, like he was waiting for safety support that never came. He took responsibility after the game, saying he didn’t read the plays correctly.
Cornerback Marlon Humphrey, who was voted team Most Valuable Player by the local media earlier in the week, suffered through one of his worst games as a pro, giving up key first downs in coverage and helping the Browns with an ill-timed holding call. “They were definitely coming at me,” he acknowledged. “My man was open a lot.”
Safety Eric Weddle said the Ravens gave up two touchdowns because of “boneheaded mistakes.” In the end, however, he chose to focus on the defense’s stand at the end of the game. Four times in a row, the Ravens blitzed and left their defensive backs in one-on-one coverage with the game on the line. “Our best versus their best, and we won four times in a row,” Weddle said.
The Ravens deserve credit for stopping the Browns where they could not stop the Cincinnati Bengals or Pittsburgh Steelers in previous seasons. But they’ll have to play more soundly to win a rematch with Philip Rivers and the Los Angeles Chargers next weekend.
The Ravens will have to worry about Baker Mayfield for a long time.
This was not one of the No. 1 overall pick’s finest performances. In the Browns’ last five victories combined, he’d thrown just one interception. Against the Ravens’ No. 1 defense, he threw three.
That said, Mayfield made a half-dozen throws that are available only to the finest quarterbacks in the world. He’s fearless standing in against pressure, drops the ball into tight spaces with impeccable touch and cannot be counted out of any play until the whistle blows. He doesn’t have the freaky improvisational ability the Ravens saw from Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes in Week 14, but he’s another young quarterback with a bit of Brett Favre in his DNA.
In other words, he’s terrifying if you’re clinging to the lead, as the Ravens were Sunday.
“I’m usually not impressed with rookies, but you saw two rookies out there today that showed this is their league,” Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs said. “Everybody knows the history of football in Cleveland, and that guy [Mayfield] is going to be something for years to come.”
Football fans should feel invigorated by all the Mayfield-Jackson match-ups to come. If you like precocious talents with contrasting styles and a shared history, they’re the brilliant future of the AFC North.
The Ravens can beat any team in the AFC playoffs.
Their docket starts with the Chargers, whom they just pummeled in Los Angeles three days before Christmas. It would be foolish to assume the Ravens will repeat that level of dominance against Rivers, one of the toughest and most prolific passers in the league. But they’ll be at home this time, and they’ve performed exceptionally against quarterbacks who do not extend plays by scrambling.
If they have to go back to Kansas City, they’d be underdogs against Mahomes and the high-scoring Chiefs. But they imposed their style of play in the same setting less than a month ago, and they believe they could do it again.
If Foxborough, Mass., is the second-round destination, you know the Ravens will travel with confidence based on their past performances against the Patriots. Their defense seems well-suited to take on a slightly diminished Tom Brady, and John Harbaugh has always coached with abandon against Bill Belichick.
If they end up playing Houston or the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC championship game, they’re better than either, according to point differential or Football Outsiders’ DVOA measure of team efficiency.
None of that’s to say the Ravens should be favored to go on a run to the Super Bowl, as they did in 2012. They would need to play tighter pass defense and more efficient red-zone offense than they did against the Browns to pull it off. But if you want to dream on the possibility, it’s not crazy.
John Harbaugh will tell you the 2018 Ravens operate with rare resilience and communal trust. He said so before the season, and he kept the faith when his team went into its bye week with a losing record and an injured starting quarterback. Maybe he sees this group in a special light because it’s his job to peddle belief. Or maybe he’s absolutely right.