Their dazzling young quarterback had thrown two interceptions. Their proud defense had been eviscerated for 530 yards. The scoreboard — Browns 40, Ravens 25 — told a harsh story about where they stood after four weeks.
Coach John Harbaugh laid it out plainly in the postgame locker room, telling his Ravens: “Right now, we’re not a very good team.”
Even glorious NFL seasons usually bring a team to at least one crossroads, that moment when the whole enterprise feels like it could tumble off into a ditch.
The 2019 Ravens faced such a reckoning in the hours and days after their Sept. 29 loss to the Browns. They’ve won 10 games in a row since and positioned themselves as the Super Bowl favorite, with a team-record 12 Pro Bowl selections and a front-runner for Most Valuable Player in quarterback Lamar Jackson.
But as they prepared for their rematch Sunday with the Browns, Ravens players said they could not have achieved such runaway success without taking a painful look in the mirror.
“That was the brutally honest truth,” Pro Bowl guard Marshal Yanda said, reflecting on Harbaugh’s words after the loss. “We had a long way to go. We had to improve and change some things, roll in some different guys. And I feel we stepped up to the challenge.”
The Ravens have “plenty to play for” Sunday, in Yanda’s words, not least the chance to secure home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs. But they’re also motivated to prove the Browns loss was the one true anomaly in their season.
“We beat ourselves that game,” Ravens wide receiver Willie Snead IV said. “Turning the ball over, not being smart. We let them get up on top of us. … That was the last time we lost, so I feel like this is another statement, if you want to put it that way.”
To a man, the Ravens say they bear little resemblance to the team from that September afternoon in Baltimore.
They’re different in ways both seen and unseen.
Players credited the team’s front office, led by general manager Eric DeCosta, for attacking roster problems rather than allowing them to metastasize. The Ravens immediately signed linebackers Josh Bynes and L.J. Fort to stabilize the middle of their defense, throwing the veteran Bynes in for 42 snaps the next Sunday in Pittsburgh. Two weeks later, they made an opportunistic trade for cornerback Marcus Peters, the brash risk-taker they were lacking. Even as their winning streak mounted in November, they added interior linemen Domata Peko Sr. and Justin Ellis to give them greater depth and brute force against the run.
“Shout out to the [general manager] and upstairs for making those moves,” linebacker Matthew Judon said. “They saw flaws or little weaknesses that we had, and they righted the ship. They got some people in here that helped us.”
Beyond the practical improvements, players who were there from the start forged deeper emotional ties that have manifested in the collective joy we see from the Ravens week after week. As the players tell it, there would have been no sunglasses on the sideline or “Big Truss” without their collective response to the Browns loss.
The Ravens seemed genuinely shaken in the moments after they walked off the field at M&T Bank Stadium. Defensive players huddled around the locker of safety Tony Jefferson, hashing through what had gone awry. Safety Earl Thomas III confronted defensive tackle Brandon Williams, who had not played in the game because of a knee injury.
Jackson recalled the conversations that ensued over the next few days. “We lose,” he said. “So, it’s like, ‘We have to tighten up. We know what we have. We just have to play ball. We can’t go out there playing not our full potential.’ So, we talked to each other. We got with one another.”
The Ravens certainly did not know they would rise from that disappointment to win every game they played over the next 2½ months. But they banded together at their lowest moment rather than disintegrate.
“We heard all the talk and all the chit-chatter [about] how bad we were,” said Judon, who was selected for his first Pro Bowl on Tuesday. “We just gelled together as a team, and we came together as a team. I think that's what helped us and sparked this run that we're on right now. A lot of people think that it's fake or it’s just for the cameras. But we love each other like that when there are no cameras around, when you all aren't around. That’s how we love each other, and that’s how we speak to each other, and that’s how we encourage one another.”
“We kind of grew a lot from that moment,” running back Mark Ingram II said. “We were 2-2, and we pretty much said that our season could go one of two ways: We can change it and we can have success, or we can fold and fail. So, we came together, and we just went back to the drawing board. We kept working one day at a time, grinding one day at a time, one game at a time, and here we are, 10 wins later.”
The Ravens have trounced opponents by a league-best 15 points per game (18 points per game since their Week 4 loss to Cleveland). They could go down as a historically great team, according to the DVOA statistic for overall efficiency developed by the analytics web site FootballOutsiders.com.
Their evolution is all the more striking when contrasted with the Browns’ collapse into familiar disarray. Cleveland was the NFL’s preseason darling, with analysts raving about the star power on the roster and quarterback Baker Mayfield generating MVP buzz almost as quickly as he accumulated commercial appearances. The Browns appeared ready to make good on the hype when they shellacked the Ravens.
Since then, they’ve won four and lost six, dealt with the infamy of defensive end Myles Garrett swinging his helmet at the head of Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Mason Rudolph and faced questions about Freddie Kitchens’ job security at the end of his first year as coach. They became the only team to complete this decade without a single winning season.
Kitchens didn’t show much interest in reflecting on the lost promise of his team’s season when he spoke with Baltimore reporters via conference call Wednesday.
“Again, whether it's bad or good, we try to stay in the moment and just realize that everything we do is in the moment, and we can't do anything about the future or the past,” he said.
Kitchens did acknowledge the “noise from outside” that’s haunted his team for much of the season.
"So, that’s what we’ve been preaching,” he said. “And hopefully, our guys have taken heed to it from the standpoint of, ‘You can only control what you can control, and you control how you prepare and how you play on Sundays.’ ”
Harbaugh has faced a more pleasant problem, working to keep his team focused on tangible goals while the rest of the football world celebrates the Ravens for trampling top opponents, running the NFL’s most creative offense and building around Jackson’s unicorn skill set.
New accolades roll in every week as the Ravens near the end of perhaps the greatest regular season in team history. But Harbaugh was in no mood to puff his team up as they prepared for the Browns rematch. Asked how much credit his staff deserved for transforming the defense since Week 4, he noted that the story is far from over. The Ravens could draw one step closer to the conclusion they want by turning the tables on their AFC North nemesis, but they have to do it on the field.
“They scorched us last game,” Harbaugh said. “So, we have to stop these guys before we start talking about who deserves credit for anything.”
Sunday, 1 p.m.
Latest Baltimore Ravens
TV: Chs. 13, 9 Radio: 97.9 FM; 1090 AM