Preston: Ravens need to show they can pull away from the pack, starting this week at Chargers

If the Ravens don’t make it to the postseason, there wouldn’t be any shock. If they make it to the AFC championship game, that wouldn’t be a major surprise, either.

That’s the state of the NFL these days.


Teams that were super earlier this season such as the Kansas City Chiefs, New Orleans Saints, Los Angeles Rams and even the New England Patriots now appear vulnerable and beatable.

They are still the front runners partially because of success, hype and top-notch talent, but the chunk of teams in the average-to-good range has grown. It’s a list that includes the Ravens, Pittsburgh Steelers, Indianapolis Colts, Houston Texans, Tennessee Titans and Los Angeles Chargers.


The Ravens pretty much have to win their final two games against the Chargers on Saturday and the Cleveland Browns next Sunday to get into the postseason. If they do, there is little to convince me they will go far because they lack playmakers — guys who take over and carry their teams in the playoffs.

The Ravens don’t have any players like quarterbacks Patrick Mahomes of Kansas City or Drew Brees of New Orleans. They don’t have a running back like the Rams’ Todd Gurley or a dynamic pass rusher like the Chicago Bears’ Khalil Mack.

The Ravens’ X-factor, though, is a physical style that the NFL has gotten away from. The Ravens still play good, hard-nosed defense and they have a tough, straight-ahead running game even though it’s led by a skinny, athletic rookie quarterback named Lamar Jackson who seems destined for either a concussion or some other hospital visit.

It’s a style the NFL has worked hard to get away from with its rule changes and emphasis on the passing game. Three- and four-receiver offensive sets have become the norm in the NFL.

Defenses have tried to match the throwing madness. Those big, bone-crushing linebackers seem to have gone away, replaced by leaner, faster, agile types. You’re seeing more tweeners as far as safeties who double as linebackers. Even the equipment, such as shoulder pads, has shrunk so players can be faster and more nimble.

But it’s hard to scheme against physicality. A defense can put six, seven or eight players near the line of scrimmage, but if they’re getting knocked off the ball, there is no solution to stop that offense.

“It does have that effect, and it’s tough to stop that kind of a play, “ said Ravens head coach John Harbaugh, whose team has the league’s top-ranked defense. “It’s tough to stop that for a whole game when it’s executed well with physicality. And our guys are doing that, and I’m proud of them for that, and that’s the way we’re playing football right now.”

This style does have its advantages. When working, the Ravens can control time of possession. They can limit the mistakes of Jackson, who struggles with accuracy and mechanics. They can also rest their defense.


But when the running game isn’t working or the Ravens fall behind, they will most likely struggle. There were signs of that late in the overtime loss to Kansas City when the Chiefs forced the Ravens to throw and the pass protection broke down.

That’s what makes the Ravens-Chargers matchup so intriguing. Jackson is 4-1 in his five straight starts, but he played against some of the weakest defensive teams in the NFL in facing the Cincinnati Bengals, Oakland Raiders, Atlanta Falcons, Chiefs and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, all of whom had poor run defenses.

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There really aren’t that many great defensive teams in the NFL anymore, but the Chargers are ranked No. 9 in points allowed (21.3), No. 8 in total defense (329.1 yards allowed per game) and ninth in rushing yards allowed per game (103.7). The Ravens and Jackson haven’t faced a defense like this in a while.

“Los Angeles is a very fast defense,” Harbaugh said. “Every single guy out there can really run and motor, which will be a challenge for our offense.”

Balance is a big word in the NFL. You want it on offense and defense, and the goal is to be in the top 10 in the league in both categories throughout the season.

The Chargers are one of the most balanced teams in the NFL, as they’re ranked No. 4 in offense as far as points. The Ravens are ranked 13th in the NFL in points and No. 11 in yards per game, but there is big difference in their passing (227.8) and rushing (141.9) yard averages.


As this season has unfolded, a number of teams have shown weaknesses. Kansas City can’t stop the run. New England looks old on offense and not very physical on defense. In the past three weeks, New Orleans has struggled on offense, losing a 13-10 physical beatdown by the Dallas Cowboys on Nov. 29.

But that’s life in the NFL. It’s a season full of ups and downs, but the important thing is to rally and put together wins in December.

The Ravens have done that in recent weeks, but it will be a different test Saturday. We’ll find out more about their running game and how far it can take them.