The out-of-town scoreboard in the northeast corner of M&T Bank Stadium flicked off at 5 p.m. Sunday, four games fading to black as an empty field stared back. If Sunday was a farewell for the Ravens, their last game in Baltimore this season, this last message was a hopeful one. It was one the team had longed to see.
At about 4:07 p.m., the Ravens had won their fourth straight game, running through the New York Giants, 27-13. A few minutes later, Ben Roethlisberger had punctuated a Pittsburgh Steelers rally with a kneel-down in victory formation. Not 10 minutes after that, the New York Jets — yes, the once-winless Jets — had won their second straight game.
It was happening: The Ravens, one of the NFL’s best teams since one of the league’s most disruptive, disappointing slides, were closing in on the postseason. Word started to spread. Tight end Mark Andrews checked his phone for confirmation after the game, and saw the Indianapolis Colts and Cleveland Browns had lost. Cornerback Anthony Averett, who’d peeked at the scoreboard during Sunday’s game, was asked at a postgame news conference about the Ravens controlling their destiny.
Even coach John Harbaugh, who’d kept his distance from the world of hypotheticals and tiebreakers, let his curiosity get the best of him. After a team prayer and some postgame recognition, Harbaugh watched on another coach’s phone as quarterback Baker Mayfield fumbled on fourth-and-short, ending the Browns’ comeback bid. The playoff situation was sorting itself out, just as he knew it would. And the Ravens (10-5) were in control, finally in the projected playoff field.
“Proud of our guys,” said Harbaugh, who secured his third straight 10-win season for the second time in his career. “Proud of [the way they’ve] just handled themselves in the situation that they were in, and we’ve been in for the last few weeks. Putting themselves in position for controlling their destiny, I think that says everything about their character. Now we have to get the job done. We have to finish the regular season up next week. We’ll be on to Cincinnati right away.”
After the Ravens’ first day of favorable AFC results in weeks, they now have a 93% chance of making the playoffs, according to FiveThirtyEight’s projections. Their Week 17 mandate is clear: With a win, they’re in.
There’s a margin for error, too. Even if the Bengals channel New Year’s Eve 2017 and break the Ravens’ hearts all over again — this time, in Cincinnati — it would not be a death knell. After their setbacks Sunday, another Browns loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers or a Colts flop against the Jacksonville Jaguars would send a 10-win Ravens team through.
At this point, though, a No. 5 seed is more likely than a No. 7 seed. The Ravens would earn the AFC’s top wild-card spot with a win in Cincinnati and a Miami Dolphins loss to the Buffalo Bills next weekend. If they win and Miami beats Buffalo, the Ravens would earn the sixth seed.
After a drama-filled December, the Ravens’ first game of 2021 could be a relatively straightforward affair. It wasn’t long ago that a team decimated by the coronavirus pandemic and injuries had lost its third straight game, the season teetering after a thrice-delayed Dec. 2 rematch with the Steelers. As late as Saturday night, when the Dolphins stunned the Las Vegas Raiders in a last-second win, Ravens fans were test-driving their grief over an 11-win team missing the playoffs altogether — in the first year of an expanded field, no less.
Now, all the Ravens have to worry about is themselves. They need to do what they did so convincingly Sunday.
“We just have to keep winning,” said quarterback Lamar Jackson, who improved to 12-1 as a starter in December games. “Like I said before, we don’t really try to lean on hoping a [contending] team loses, because it really doesn’t matter. We still have to win, no matter what, and that’s what I’m focused on. I’m just happy they lost.”
The Ravens took the drama out of Sunday’s game early, as they often have during their season-long winning streak. On their opening drive, they rolled over the Giants’ defense — the best they’ve faced since Pittsburgh’s — for 82 yards in 13 plays, the last a 6-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Marquise “Hollywood” Brown.
The Giants (5-10) promptly went three-and-out, and the Ravens marched to the end zone again before the first quarter ended. Running back J.K. Dobbins’ 2-yard rushing touchdown was his seventh this season, breaking Jamal Lewis’ record for a Ravens rookie, and the Giants never got within single digits again. There was already more drama on the out-of-town scoreboard than on the field.
“They don’t want to see their offense go three-and-out and our offense go right back out there,” outside linebacker Matthew Judon said. “The style that our offense runs is downhill. So that was supposed to be a physical team.”
The Ravens, instead, were the bullies. Again. Since Week 13, they’ve averaged 233.3 rushing yards per game, almost 30 yards more than the record-breaking pace of last season’s ground attack. Running backs Gus Edwards (11 carries for 85 yards) and Dobbins (11 carries for 77 yards), along with Jackson (13 carries for 80 yards), all had runs of 20-plus yards. With 249 rushing yards total, the Ravens averaged more yards per carry (6.2) than hobbled Giants quarterback Daniel Jones averaged per pass attempt (6.1).
Each drive seemed to amplify the differences in their respective abilities. One team looked like it was ready for the playoffs; the other looked like it needed the offseason, badly. When the Ravens lost two starters on offense — center Patrick Mekari and wide receiver Willie Snead IV — to seemingly minor injuries in the first half, they still had the juice to get a field goal. When they lost two starters on defense — safety DeShon Elliott and cornerback Marlon Humphrey — to minor injuries in the third quarter, all the Giants could manage was a field goal.
It was seldom a fair fight. The Ravens’ pass protection allowed no sacks and kept Jackson (17-for-26 for 183 yards and two touchdowns) upright in the pocket for 7.4 seconds on one first-quarter play, according to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats — until he scrambled for 18 yards. The Giants gave up six sacks, including three straight in the fourth quarter, and Jones (24-for-41 for 252 yards and a touchdown) was hit 11 times overall.
“We’ve got a lot of great players; it’s not just one or two guys,” said Andrews, who had a team-high six catches for 76 yards. “It’s guys who are making plays all over the field. And to be a good team, you have to have that. So I just think everyone is starting to come on and execute. That’s all you can ask for, so it’s really good to see at this time of year.”
The Ravens will enter Week 17 with a buzz different from their last regular-season finale. They don’t have the AFC’s No. 1 seed, or Marshal Yanda or Ronnie Stanley or Nick Boyle available, or a defense with the health of last year’s unit.
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But what’s limited the Ravens this season is also is also what might lift them in the postseason. They have only begun to resemble the Super Bowl contenders that so many expected. The offense is a steamroller once more, the defense is thriving with backups and practice call-ups, and the special teams are still elite.
All of which makes it hard not to wonder: If the Ravens can win just one more game ...
“We just have to do what we do,” Judon said. “We have to come out here and execute, communicate [on] both sides. All three phases have to do their job, and we can’t hope for other people to lose. If we do right, like we’ve been doing for the last couple of weeks. … If we do right, it’s in our hands. And now, it’s in our hands.”
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