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Five Things We Learned from the Ravens’ 27-13 win over the New York Giants

Even as the Ravens finally received help from other cities, they kept their focus narrow in a clinical 27-13 beating of the New York Giants. Here are five things we learned Sunday:

Irrespective of what happened elsewhere, the Ravens played like a contender.

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Mark Andrews’ eyes kept flicking to the scoreboard above the field at M&T Bank Stadium. He acknowledged as much after the Pittsburgh Steelers and New York Jets cleared the Ravens’ road to the playoffs with tense victories in other cities.

Other than Andrews’ brief nod, however, good luck getting the Ravens to discuss the greater context around their win Sunday afternoon. They did not wish to comment on postseason scenarios or destinies that could or could not be controlled. The ground gained would mean nothing, they said, without a win in Cincinnati next weekend. So that’s where they placed their focus.

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This is how the Ravens have climbed out of a 6-5 hole and rediscovered their collective enthusiasm. They treat each game as a self-contained problem. Solve one and it’s on to the next. Their wild win in Cleveland aside, they’ve become the least dramatic of AFC contenders.

Despite some late mistakes that kept the final score closer than it should have been, they squeezed the air of the Giants from the first whistle. They delivered a full platter of running-game delights, from Lamar Jackson’s option dashes up the middle to J.K. Dobbins’ astonishing feats of balance to Gus Edwards’ deft cuts and spins. The Giants, led by fearsome interior mammoths Leonard Williams and Dexter Lawrence, had not allowed more than 159 rushing yards in any game this season. The Ravens piled up 231 in the first three quarters. They converted on eight of 11 third downs compared with one of 10 for the Giants. This was the offense we remembered from 2019, when they obliterated the NFL’s single-season rushing record.

Whatever heart-to-heart talks Jackson conducted with himself as he lay in bed, recovering from COVID-19, he has played splendidly throughout his team’s four-game winning streak. He looked like a man enjoying Florida beach weather as he calmly dissected the Giants’ zone coverage from a comfortable pocket maintained by the Ravens’ resurgent offensive line.

Drama abounded in the wider world of the NFL, with the Jets somehow winning for a second straight week against the pandemic-depleted Browns and Ben Roethlisberger finding some whiff of his former greatness against the Indianapolis Colts. This all made for quite the viewing experience.

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But the Ravens kept their mission narrow and clinical against another opponent they were favored to beat handily. In other words, they acted like a really good team.

“To be honest, I don’t want to start overthinking,” Jackson said. “I just want to keep the laser-sharp focus we have going right now and just focus on the task at hand. We don’t want to [say,] ‘Oh yes, we’re doing this right. We’re doing this wrong.’ Just keep building. Just keep stacking wins.”

If you want to understand why the Ravens offense is humming, start upfront.

After All-Pro left tackle Ronnie Stanley went down with a season-ending ankle injury in Week 8, it was fair to wonder if the Ravens would have to wait until 2021 to rebuild a functional offensive line.

The problem wasn’t on the left edge, where Orlando Brown Jr. was eager and able to step into the position he’d played in college; it was the cascading effect created by Brown’s shift, an injury to rookie right guard Tyre Phillips and the snapping woes of center Matt Skura.

Could the Ravens make the right side work with Ben Powers, who’d seemed in danger of being cut as recently as September, and D.J. Fluker, who’d struggled to put his power to good use in his early weeks with the team?

The early returns were not good. Remember those midseason losses in which the Ravens’ running game turned pedestrian and Jackson could not find room to operate? The absences of Stanley and the retired Marshal Yanda loomed over a wayward season.

But the Ravens settled into a more stable, effective alignment in recent weeks and proved their gains were not schedule-driven illusions with an excellent showing against the Giants’ bruising front four. Brown made the Pro Bowl again and is driving up his earning power with his stint at left tackle. Patrick Mekari has established himself as an above-average starting center. Powers has become one of the great surprises on the roster, while the Ravens have learned to play to Fluker’s strengths.

“Our guys have been doing their thing, man — the whole starting five,” Jackson said. “Today, [center] Pat [Mekari] went down a little bit, and [Matt] Skura went in and finished where he left off.”

Credit offensive line coach Joe D’Alessandris, who consistently makes the best of the talent he’s given and who had to work through his own bout with COVID-19. “I think he understands just the idea of focusing on what’s important and not spending time on things that are more peripheral,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said of his 66-year-old blocking guru. “He focuses on the things that make a difference, and I know the guys appreciate that.”

Anthony Averett has taken his career to a new level over the last two weeks.

The 2018 fourth-round pick started this season as a spare part in a secondary overstocked with riches. Ravens coaches talked up his tools and imperturbable demeanor, but where would he find opportunity with Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters playing every snap and Jimmy Smith shining as a deluxe utility man?

Well, injuries spoke, picking off nickel corner Tavon Young, then Smith and finally Peters. After Averett endured a fractured shoulder and a healthy scratch in Week 14, he suddenly found himself slotted into Peters’ iron-man role for two games the Ravens could not lose. It wasn’t as if they changed their scheme to protect the former Alabama standout. Defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale blitzed freely and trusted Averett to hold up. After a solid performance in Week 15 against the Jacksonville Jaguars, he broke up two passes against the Giants, complementing Humphrey just as he did in their college days.

Afterward, Averett said the last two weeks have been the most important of his young career. “The team needed me and I definitely feel like I stepped up,” he said.

Harbaugh recently praised him as a “starter-quality” cornerback.

“We’ve got trust in ‘Double-A,’” linebacker Matthew Judon said. “He was playing some good football. It’s unfortunate he got an injury earlier in the season. But we trust him, and we put him out there on an island sometimes, and he comes up big for us. That’s what every level has to do on our defense for us to be a great defense.”

The Ravens’ rookie class has been essential, and Justin Madubuike might end up as the draft steal of the bunch.

Madubuike missed the first four games of his rookie season with a lingering injury from training camp, and just as he began to build momentum, he landed on the reserve/COVID-19 list. So his path to making essential contributions has been rockier than those of the two players the Ravens drafted above him, Patrick Queen and Dobbins.

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But Madubuike’s play jumped off the tape in Week 14 and 15 victories over the Browns and Jaguars, respectively. With Calais Campbell hampered by a calf injury, the Ravens needed him to step forward, and Madubuike answered with the explosiveness Harbaugh described back on draft day. On Sunday, he scored the first sack of his NFL career.

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The last standout interior linemen the Ravens drafted was Brandon Williams in 2013. It’s been even longer since they picked and developed a productive interior pass rusher. When Madubuike bursts off the line, you see his potential to end that drought.

We knew Queen would be asked to play a major role from the jump. We knew Dobbins came out of Ohio State as a polished and productive runner. But Madubuike was the one who screamed “value” to draft oracles who wondered how a defensive lineman with his tools and SEC pedigree fell to No. 71 overall.

He’s an important part of the team already. In two years, he could be one of its star defenders.

The night is darkest before the dawn.

If you believe in fate more than probability, Saturday night was a doozy.

What else to say after Ryan Fitzpatrick, Rasputin in aquamarine, completed a 34-yard pass with a defender’s paw obscuring much of his face to lead the Miami Dolphins to a decidedly improbable comeback?

At that moment, it was easy to believe the Ravens would never receive the break they needed to return to the playoffs.

A cursed season? It seemed plausible enough after three months of catastrophic injuries, offensive misfires, COVID-19 positives and even an ill-timed Massachusetts monsoon.

This excruciating wait for assistance from another city, encapsulated by the Las Vegas Raiders’ 19-second collapse against the Dolphins, felt like the perfect topper.

Until Fitzpatrick completed his pass, with 15 yards tacked on for the face mask violation, rational Ravens fans could take comfort from the 85% playoff probabilities spit out by various analytics systems. But as one more tangible chance dwindled away, harder realizations set in. The Ravens were running out of games that could go their way.

Sunday didn’t start off much better, with the Steelers — inept on offense in recent weeks — falling 17 points behind the Colts. Could the Ravens’ best hopes really rest with angels clad in green and white as the Jets, freed of poll position in their loser’s race for Trevor Lawrence, built a lead on the Browns? Strange bedfellows.

Well, wouldn’t you know that after all the angst of the last few weeks, the Ravens received the help they needed in both matchups affecting their playoff hopes. The Browns’ luck turned sour. Roethlisberger staged his revival.

Score one for probability — the chance that one of the many scenarios favoring the Ravens would go their way — over the crooked fortune perceived to be lurking under the locker-room carpet in Owings Mills.

The Ravens are clear to move forward on their own terms.

Regular-season finale

RAVENS@BENGALS

Sunday, 1 p.m.

TV: Ch. 13

Radio: 97.9 FM, 1090 AM

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