The Ravens closed their regular season with an awe-inspiring demonstration of power against the overmatched Cincinnati Bengals. Now, they have to answer the question that’s haunted them for 12 months: Can they do it in the playoffs?
The Ravens could not have looked more awesome; now, they have to show it’s for real.
After Lamar Jackson burst from his phone booth to pull the Ravens from the fire in Cleveland, the rest of the team’s march to January took on a brutal inevitability. Every week, they would be favored by double digits, and every week, their overmatched opponent would fall before the fury of a running attack that stands with any in the history of the NFL.
The Ravens finished this five-week story with an awe-inspiring display in Cincinnati, refusing to let the Bengals play in their sand box as they held the ball for 40:31 and threatened the league’s single-game rushing record.
Even for an offense that rumbled to a record 3,296 yards last season, this closing stretch rang some mighty statistical bells. The Ravens averaged 267.4 yards on the ground over their past five games, a rate that would put them past 4,000 for a full 16-game slate. Jackson racked up 430 of his season-total 1,005 yards in this span, averaging 7.7 per carry. Running backs J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards nearly matched him, averaging 6.8 yards per carry. Over their last three games, the Ravens converted on 27 of 40 third downs; their opponents converted on seven of 31.
We could go on and on. The bottom line is that with their playoff hopes teetering every week, the Ravens became the team they were supposed to be from the start.
Now that they’ve secured their second season, the next question arises: How real was this dominance?
Yes, the Ravens won their past five by an average of 19.4 points. But they did it against defenses that ranked 21st, 24th, 31st, 23rd and 27th in Football Outsiders’ DVOA. Though they deserve credit for not slipping up, as so many other contenders did, few doubted their ability to punish lesser teams. The Ravens went 8-1 against opponents that finished with sub-.500 records, 3-4 against those with winning marks. Add to this their 0-2 record in the playoffs with Jackson at starting quarterback, and they’re in for a week of national commentators picking at their legitimacy.
The Ravens will take it. In fact, their franchise player and their head coach have always relished kicking doubters in the teeth.
John Harbaugh made his NFL reputation on road playoff victories, and he’ll try to add to it with a team that’s lived in win-or-go-home mode since early December. Might he actually like this position better than the cushier one the Ravens earned as the AFC’s No. 1 seed last year? “I love where this team is right now,” he said Sunday.
And what about Jackson, who’s set to face his ghosts from playoffs past? “It’s just the beginning for us,” he said.
Greg Roman adjusted to get the Ravens back to running dominance.
It’s easy to forget in the glow of their crushing performance against the Bengals, but the Ravens’ rushing offense was merely pretty good from Weeks 9 through 12. They averaged 120.8 yards in that span and not coincidentally, lost three of four. Roman, the NFL’s premiere running guru, became target No. 1 for grouchy fans.
We could write off the Ravens’ statistical dominance since then as a byproduct of their friendlier schedule. But that wouldn’t be fair to their offensive coordinator.
We’ve seen them try all manner of wrinkles, from lesser reliance on the pistol formation to more under-center and two-back sets to well-timed uses of jet sweeps for wide receiver Devin Duvernay. More importantly, perhaps, the Ravens decided to ride Dobbins and Edwards, trusting veteran Mark Ingram II to handle his lesser role with customary professionalism.
Starting with their victory over the Dallas Cowboys in Week 13, the Ravens looked like the team we remembered from 2019, with their presnap motion keeping defenses off balance, their physicality inflicting a game-long toll and Jackson’s scrambling serving as an ace in the hole.
The Bengals were helpless as the Ravens showed off all the weapons, tactical and personnel, that make them a unique force in modern professional football.
“You see all the different moving parts and it’s an orchestra they’ve put together,” CBS color analyst Adam Archuleta gushed during an interview last week. The former NFL safety said there’s no way he’d want to play against an attack designed by Roman.
Say what you will about the limits of the Ravens’ passing concepts; Roman’s offenses have produced huge rushing numbers in three different NFL cities over the past decade. This would not be the case if he lacked the skill to tinker.
The Ravens’ defense didn’t need to do much heavy lifting against the Bengals, but its improved health is essential.
No one enjoyed the Ravens’ 404-yard rushing performance more than the team’s defenders, who only had to strap up for 40 offensive plays from the Bengals.
“As long as that clock ticks and they’re running the ball, it helps us,” outside linebacker Matthew Judon said.
Judon and his mates did plenty with the snaps they played, holding Bengals quarterback Brandon Allen to 48 passing yards a week after he threw for 371 in a victory over the Houston Texans. With Marcus Peters back from a calf injury that kept him out two weeks and Anthony Averett (two passes defended) continuing his excellent play, the Ravens nearly shut out wide receivers Tyler Boyd and A.J. Green, who tormented them in past years. Outside linebacker Tyus Bowser gave the Bengals fits, whether he rushed Allen or dropped into coverage.
The best news for the Ravens was their improving health. Peters moved well in his first week back, and veteran defensive end Calais Campbell again looked fitter as he put a lingering calf injury behind him. After the game, Harbaugh said the Ravens could have cornerback Jimmy Smith and edge rusher Yannick Ngakoue back for their playoff opener, which would nearly fill their defensive cupboard. That’s no small thing after so many weeks of daunting injury reports. The Ravens will need all their bodies against a Tennessee Titans offense that wore them down in Week 11.
“We’re not done; we’re just getting started,” Peters said. “What we went through earlier made us to be where we’re at now, and it’s unified. We’ve got a goal, and the goal isn’t going to be complete until all of us get it done.”
Lamar Jackson’s efficiency in the red zone is as exceptional as his running.
Jackson became the first NFL quarterback to run for 1,000 yards in consecutive seasons, and his fluid brilliance when he’s scrambling out of a bind still pops off the screen.
But he also continued his exceptional performance in an area where he’s just as dependent on his eyes and his judgment as on his legs. Over the past two seasons, Jackson has completed 78 of 119 passes (65.5%) of his passes in the red zone, with 43 touchdowns and no interceptions.
No one — not Patrick Mahomes, not Tom Brady, not Russell Wilson, not Aaron Rodgers — has been more consistent in this critical section of the field.
“In that condensed spaced, there’s a lot you’ve got to account for, and him being him, you have to account for him,” said wide receiver Marquise Brown, who caught two red zone touchdown passes against the Bengals. “When he’s able to get out of the pocket, we’re able to run free, so he makes our job a lot easier.”
As Brown suggested, Jackson dances around to buy time as his options unfold, and he finds the best one more often than not. Remember how the Ravens struggled to complete drives in the pre-Jackson years? We should not take his finishing skills for granted.
The Ravens might as well stare their chief demon directly in the eye.
As we sifted through the ashes a year ago, trying to make sense of the Ravens’ playoff loss at the hands of the Titans, one thought predominated: We really wouldn’t learn much more about this team until they got their next shot in January.
While that didn’t prove entirely true, given the slings and arrows the Ravens confronted over the past 12 months, here we are, back to the essential question: Can they do it in the playoffs?
Doesn’t it figure they’ll try to answer the question against the very team that threw them into this crisis of confidence? Remember what cornerback Marlon Humphrey said after that 28-12 loss to the Titans? “This team’s identity right now is to get in the playoffs and choke.”
For all the matchups and tactics we’ll discuss over the next week, the Ravens will have to confront this specter. They might as well do it against the opponent that represents their worst misgivings.
The Ravens should not dread a matchup with the Titans, whom they outplayed for 3½ quarters in Week 11. Tennessee entered Week 17 with the fourth-worst defensive DVOA in the league, mediocre against the run and lousy against the pass. Yes, they’ve troubled Jackson by taking away the middle of the field, but they also allowed the Cleveland Browns and Green Bay Packers to trample them in recent weeks. They gave up 38 points Sunday against the woebegone Texans.
The Ravens have run over opposing defenses in the same stretch. They will move the ball.
Can they hold up over four quarters against Derrick Henry’s outside-zone runs and Ryan Tannehill’s play-action shots? We know they could not in November, when their tackling fell apart late as the Titans rallied from a 21-10 deficit. But the Ravens are healthier on the defensive front and more settled at linebacker than they were for that loss.
From a pure football standpoint, they’re set up well to change their narrative against the Titans. Can Jackson and his teammates answer the more abstract question we’ve asked for the last year?
“It’s not about them,” Jackson said. “It’s about us.”
Sunday, 1 p.m.
TV: Chs. 2, 7, ESPN
Latest Baltimore Ravens
Radio: 97.9 FM, 1090 AM