Rows of reporters and a line of cameras separated John Harbaugh from the small TV playing in the back of the Ravens’ news conference room inside M&T Bank Stadium, and at one point early in his presser Saturday, the coach jokingly held a hand up to his face, as if to cover himself from the images being transmitted from Gillette Stadium.
The Ravens had beaten the Atlanta Falcons, 17-9, and now there was a slight delay in determining just how significant their 10th win of the season would be. Harbaugh could carry on for only so long.
“It’s players who win games …” he said to a roomful of distracted watchers, casting his gaze over to the TV. “You guys all want to watch the end of this, huh?” A last-gasp pass from New England Patriots quarterback Mac Jones had fallen incomplete. The Cincinnati Bengals were going to hold on in Foxborough, Massachusetts. The Ravens were going back to the playoffs.
“Oh, OK,” Harbaugh said when he was assured that that was the case. “It feels great. Congratulations to our guys.”
Afterward, the mood in the locker room was subdued, matter-of-fact. Maybe it was because the Ravens (10-5) knew they were long shots to miss the playoffs. Maybe it was because a few didn’t even know they’d clinched a playoff berth. (“Oh, really?” inside linebacker Roquan Smith said when asked about the feat.) Maybe it was because the Ravens were missing a handful of potential postseason difference-makers. Whatever the reasons, this Christmas Eve triumph lacked the holly-jolly cheer of earlier postseason-clinching victories.
In 2018, the Ravens had earned a division title and a playoff berth on a last-second interception in a Week 17 win over the Cleveland Browns. A year later, they’d secured a postseason trip with their ninth straight victory and another late stop, this time against the Buffalo Bills. In 2020, when they last extended their season, they’d needed a Week 17 win to clinch a playoff berth — and got it with a 38-3 rout in Cincinnati, rumbling over the Bengals for a franchise-record 404 running yards.
On Saturday, the Ravens punched their ticket with a style befitting of their circumstances. Quarterback Lamar Jackson was sidelined for a third straight game, so they asked backup Tyler Huntley to pass just 17 times. The weather was the coldest ever for a Ravens home game (17 degrees at kickoff), so they turned running back Gus Edwards into a battering ram (11 carries for 99 yards). The Falcons were starting rookie Desmond Ridder at quarterback, so the defense geared up to stop Atlanta’s powerful ground game (3.5 yards per carry allowed).
“These games are all playoff football from here on out,” Harbaugh said. “This is a really valuable game. This is something that we talked to our guys about; when you win games in September and October and into November, then you put yourself in position to win meaningful games in December. Meaningful games in December are just hugely valuable, as you can see, as you know. Then you have an opportunity — when you win them, they really count for something.”
It was not a pretty win, but the Ravens have mostly eschewed aesthetics in the 15 quarters since Jackson suffered a knee injury, and still they’ve won three of four games. For all of the stats Saturday suggesting they were in trouble — their 1-for-4 mark in the red zone, Huntley’s 115 passing yards, a decisive loss in the time-of-possession battle — the Ravens wrestled away control of the game elsewhere.
Ridder finished 22-for-33 for 218 yards, but the third-round pick watched a fourth-down completion to rookie wide receiver Drake London punched out by cornerback Marlon Humphrey and recovered by inside linebacker Patrick Queen in Ravens territory. An intentional-grounding penalty on Ridder later torpedoed one Falcons drive at the Ravens’ 1-yard line just before halftime. Midway through the fourth quarter, a stumble and a stop in another goal-line stand kept the Ravens in control as time ticked away.
For a while, they’d seemed headed for the kind of late-game failing that has epitomized their shortcomings this season — settling for a field goal when a touchdown could’ve been had, giving up a score when the game’s momentum had swung elsewhere. With about nine minutes left, the Ravens’ scuffling offense (five second-half first downs) watched from the sideline as Atlanta (5-10) marched to the 4-yard line, then the 2.
But good fortune broke their way. Rookie running back Tyler Allgeier (18 carries for 74 yards) seemed to trip himself on a second-down handoff, scuttling a possible touchdown with a run that went for nothing. On third-and-goal, Ridder scrambled for a yard. On fourth-and-goal from the 1, defensive tackle Isaiah Mack and Queen helped drop Allgeier for a 1-yard loss.
“On defense, it was just the fact that we needed to play a complete game,” Queen said after the Ravens held Atlanta to 327 yards of total offense (4.8 per play) and three field goals. “I think we haven’t done that yet, and I think we still didn’t do it today. So our main focus was playing a complete game. Start the game with the kill, end the game with a kill. So as long as we keep going on the path that we’re going, we’re going to be straight.”
The Ravens’ recipe for playoff success will approximate what they managed to whip up Saturday, what they’ve managed to do over the past few weeks. Since their fourth-quarter collapse in a Week 12 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars, the Ravens have allowed just three touchdowns over the past four weeks. Even without injured defensive lineman Calais Campbell (knee) and cornerback Marcus Peters (calf), the Ravens held strong against a talented but inexperienced Atlanta offense.
That gave their offense the license to run the ball, over and over. Excluding kneel-downs, the Ravens rushed 31 times for 187 yards (6.0 per carry), their third straight game with more than 180 rushing yards. A week after abandoning the run in the fourth quarter of a 13-3 loss to the Cleveland Browns, offensive coordinator Greg Roman tended not to overthink things. He mostly just tried to get the ball to Edwards and running back J.K. Dobbins (12 carries for 59 yards).
The Ravens’ first touchdown in eight quarters came at the end of a 13-play, 70-yard, second-quarter drive during which Huntley attempted just two passes. One of them, a leaping 6-yard completion by wide receiver Demarcus Robinson on third-and-goal, ended the Ravens’ touchdown-less streak at 135 minutes, 8 seconds. It was also the first touchdown catch by a Ravens wide receiver since Week 3. Huntley barged his way into the end zone for the 2-point conversion and a 14-0 lead with just over two minutes left.
“It felt great,” Huntley said. “Just scoring touchdowns, period, is like tears of joy. It meant a lot to our defense, how much they are working hard to not let other teams score and then we punch it in the end zone. It plays a great role in that.”
Added tight end Mark Andrews, who had a team-high three catches for 45 yards: “Offensively, obviously, scoring felt incredible and just trying to build off that. There was a lot of good things that we did today and I’m excited to build on it.”
Even with the Ravens’ place in the postseason secured, they will head into the final two weeks of their regular season with injury questions that could shape not only their roster management but also their hopes of knocking off the Bengals for the AFC North crown.
Harbaugh said Jackson is “working very hard to get back” from his knee injury, but that he hadn’t considered whether Saturday’s results might alter his return timetable. Campbell’s absence was notable Saturday, especially in pass-rush situations. Peters will be needed against the spread-passing attacks powering some of the AFC’s best teams.
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But first, the Ravens will worry about the Pittsburgh Steelers. Then they’ll worry about the Cincinnati Bengals. Then the postseason will arrive, and they’ll have to prove themselves all over again.
“That’s what we play the game for, to be one of those teams that make it to the playoffs,” Smith said. “That’s where the chase to the Super Bowl starts, getting to the playoffs. Just one game at a time. That’s great — happy to be in there. Just got to keep chopping away.”
Steelers at Ravens
Sunday, Jan. 1, 1 p.m.
TV: Ch. 13
Radio: 97.9 FM, 101.5 FM, 1090 AM