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Five Things We Learned from the Ravens' 44-20 win over the Detroit Lions

1) The Ravens have set themselves up as favorites to claim a wild-card spot.

This was a deceptively essential game. The Ravens could not go to 0-2 against the Lions and the Pittsburgh Steelers and expect to claim a wild-card spot. And on paper, beating the Lions at home seemed more likely than winning in Pittsburgh next weekend.

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Yet the Lions presented a dangerous challenge, coming to town with big-armed quarterback Matthew Stafford and plenty to play for themselves.

No matter what misgivings you might feel about the Ravens’ big-picture direction, give them credit for responding with perhaps their best all-around effort of the season.

They attacked early on offense, which we’ve seen in all their best games. But they also responded with scoring drives each time the Lions pulled within a touchdown the second half. That was new.

The defense bent plenty and even broke a little but delivered the well-timed turnovers that have become its trademark.

The special teams won its battle with one of the best opposing units in the league.

Coach John Harbaugh often uses the term “team victory” when the Ravens have won a big game, but that really was an apt description in this case.

Three-game winning streak or no, the trip to Pittsburgh will be difficult. But the Ravens gave themselves a cushion. They’ll be no worse than 7-6 going into a soft closing stretch that includes the pitiable Browns, the Andrew Luck-less Colts and a Bengals team that might have little to play for the last week of the season.

This is no time to count chickens, of course. Recall that last year, the Ravens moved to 7-5 with a crushing 38-6 victory over the playoff-bound Miami Dolphins and then lost three of their last four. But that was a road-dominated schedule.

The path this year is clearer.

2) Jimmy Smith’s injury makes Marlon Humphrey one of the most important players on the Ravens.

Even if the injury was far from a fait accompli, the Ravens were aware Smith’s Achilles could rupture and bring an abrupt end to his run of career-best play. Their No. 1 cornerback’s tenuous health was a sword hanging over the season.

That’s why it was so important for the coaches to work Humphrey into the lineup early in the season. Because the rookie has been so good, the Ravens are in far better shape to endure Smith’s injury than they were in previous seasons.

If Humphrey is completely healthy.

That’s suddenly one of the biggest questions for the remainder of the season given his recent leg soreness.

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Coaches and teammates have raved about Humphrey’s maturity and athleticism since the first day of training camp. Rarely, if ever, has he seemed overwhelmed by the NFL stage, which makes sense considering his dad was an NFL standout and he played for the most successful college program in the country.

He hasn’t received as much acclaim as some other rookies, but that’s largely because he has not played as many snaps. Now, he’ll face his true trial by fire as a full-time starter in the thick of a playoff race. He’s one of the most important players on the team going forward.

Humphrey looked fine physically in the second half against the Lions, though Detroit’s top deep threat, Marvin Jones Jr., boxed him out for 42- and 46-yard catches.

Harbaugh said Humphrey’s technique lapsed on at least one of those plays but added that such mistakes have not been a pattern for him this season.

As for Smith, he’s a phenomenal talent who seems destined never to play a long run of healthy seasons (he’s suited up for the full 16 games just twice in seven years).

It must feel maddening to possess every gift — mental and physical — needed to thrive at one of the sport’s premium positions, only to be undermined by injuries. Smith certainly works hard at maintaining his body. He employs a rotation of trainers and specialists who come to his house to make sure every part of his frame is strong and loose.

He’s just unlucky in this one way.

3) The Ravens’ defense is vulnerable, but their ability to create crucial turnovers can’t be denied.

Other than Ben Roethlisberger and Marcus Mariota if we’re being generous, the Ravens really hadn’t played against star quarterbacks this season. They definitely hadn’t beaten one.

So Stafford posed an intriguing test for one of the NFL’s best statistical defenses.

The Ravens didn’t get anywhere near him until safety Eric Weddle drilled him from the blind side on a blitz in the second quarter. The resulting fumble set up a touchdown, and the Ravens went into halftime with a shutout.

Then in the fourth quarter, the Ravens pressured Stafford into an interception that set up another touchdown and basically clinched the game.

In between those two huge plays, Stafford torched them, a concerning sign as the Ravens look ahead to another matchup with Roethlisberger on Sunday night.

The Ravens did a decent job limiting the volume of throws to Detroit’s outside receivers, Jones and Kenny Golladay. But Stafford picked Lardarius Webb apart in the slot, finding Golden Tate eight times on 10 targets for 69 yards.

Despite Webb’s coverage struggles this season, Stafford was one of the first quarterbacks to exploit the Ravens so consistently on underneath throws.

According to DVOA ratings on FootballOutsiders.com, the defense came in as the best in the league against passes 15 yards or shorter.

On the other hand, they were 28th in the league against tight ends, a problem that manifested itself against Detroit’s Eric Ebron, who caught four passes on four targets.

The Ravens will take the final result every time. But when they review the tape, they won’t enjoy watching Stafford complete 24 of 29 throws for 10.1 yards an attempt.

4) Joe Flacco delivered one of his best passing performances of the season, and it could have been better if the receivers made fewer mistakes.

Flacco threw a pass at the ankles of an open Mike Wallace on the first drive of the game, but he didn’t miss many throws the rest of the way.

The offensive line played well, giving him time to look downfield, and Flacco took advantage by averaging 7.5 yards on 36 attempts, his second-most efficient performance of the season. Anytime he takes zero sacks and throws zero interceptions, the Ravens have to be thrilled.

The thing is — Flacco’s line could have been more eye-popping if his receivers hadn’t dropped so many passes. There was no chief culprit. Mike Wallace, Jeremy Maclin, Benjamin Watson and Chris Moore all allowed relatively easy catches to slip through their hands, costing the Ravens first downs in several cases.

Their performance was a reminder that the Ravens’ offensive struggles have been multipronged. Some weeks, the scheme has not been ambitious enough. Some weeks, Flacco has looked gun-shy and out of sync. But the problems go beyond the offensive coordinator and the quarterback.

5) The Ravens won their special-teams Super Bowl.

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The Ravens and Lions came in first and third, respectively, in special-teams efficiency, according to Football Outsiders.

Baltimore coordinator Jerry Rosburg lavished praise on his Detroit counterparts during the week, so he had to be thrilled watching his guys outperform the Lions in the third phase of the game.

Justin Tucker reminded us of his immense value, hitting from 38, 46 and 51 yards while his Detroit counterpart, Matt Prater, missed a field-goal attempt and an extra-point try.

It’s easy to take Tucker’s excellence for granted, but his accuracy on long field goals continues to be a marvel.

Harbaugh noted that the Ravens also did an excellent job blocking Detroit’s unusually aggressive field-goal defense. Not to mention they gained 108 return yards compared with 56 for the Lions.

Michael Campanaro’s fumble, which the Ravens recovered, was one of the few obvious miscues for Rosburg’s crew.

If the Ravens do end up in the playoffs for the first time in three years, their special-teams excellence will be a major reason.

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