In a must-win game, the Ravens did what they usually do against heavy underdogs, thrashing the Jacksonville Jaguars, 40-14, behind a stellar passing performance from quarterback Lamar Jackson. Here are five things we learned Sunday:
The Ravens don’t mess around against lousy teams.
They had plenty of excuses for a desultory performance. Just six days earlier, they’d invested tremendous physical and emotional capital to defeat the Cleveland Browns. They took the field Sunday without Calais Campbell, Jimmy Smith or Marcus Peters. Marlon Humphrey was their only healthy starter holding on at cornerback. They’d endured another COVID-19 scare involving wide receivers Marquise Brown, Miles Boykin and James Proche II.
The Jaguars, meanwhile, had at least stayed close to the Browns, the Minnesota Vikings and the Green Bay Packers in recent weeks.
None of it mattered as the Ravens smothered an opponent they were supposed to beat.
Their defense, which looked exhausted in the fourth quarter against Cleveland, seized the initiative with four first-half sacks. Their offensive line gave Jackson a clean pocket against a pitiable pass rush. When the Jaguars gave them a short field, they scored touchdowns.
By the end of the second quarter, the Ravens started checking off items on their Christmas lists — a touchdown to end the three-year drought for wide receiver Dez Bryant, a pair of sacks for defensive end Yannick Ngakoue against his former team, a 22-yard ramble by rookie right tackle Tyre Phillips.
Three weeks after COVID-19 sapped so many Ravens, Jackson said they played like “new toys out there.”
We’ve seen this throughout coach John Harbaugh’s 13 seasons in Baltimore. When the Ravens are heavily favored, they win and usually decisively.
“You always just hammer what’s at stake and looking straight ahead,” Harbaugh said. “I’m proud of our guys for being able to do that over the years, and this bunch, really this game was one of the best jobs of that we’ve had in the whole time we’ve been here.”
Several Ravens said they don’t have to rely on any one person to press for focus.
“Everybody knows the mentality,” said Bryant, who could not wait to show his touchdown ball to the young daughter who inspired his comeback. “We’ve got to play good football from here on out. … We don’t care about anything else.”
Lamar Jackson made excellent use of his time as a passer.
Jackson shredded the Browns and Dallas Cowboys with scrambles, but the Jaguars actually did a good job containing his improvisatory magic. They committed one and sometimes two middle-tier defenders to spying on his every move. His only double-digit gain came on a designed run.
This approach gave Jacksonville little chance to hurry Jackson’s decision-making as a passer, however, and he made excellent use of his time, relying on superior mid-play vision to probe downfield. His first two touchdown passes came off secondary reads, and he made aggressive decisions as a passer throughout.
On the Ravens’ first drive, Jackson underthrew Brown in the end zone for his fourth interception in his past five starts. He also missed on a pair of open downfield throws in Cleveland, so his touch on these potential game-breakers was off. But he rectified this shortcoming over the ensuing three quarters, feathering long passes to Brown and tight end Mark Andrews, who combined to catch 11 passes on 12 targets for 164 yards.
We haven’t seen that kind of aerial production since the Ravens’ Week 1 blowout of the Browns. Take it with a grain of salt, because the Jaguars came in allowing a league-worst 7.7 yards per attempt.
But the bottom line is that since returning from the reserve/COVID-19 list, Jackson has strung together three games reminiscent of his 2019 Most Valuable Player campaign. If he’s playing like this, the Ravens’ flaws feel surmountable.
The Ravens won this game along the line of scrimmage.
The team’s offensive and defensive fronts wasted no time signaling what kind of beating this would be.
Though Jackson’s interception cut the Ravens’ first drive short, he had as much time as he needed from the first snap on, taking just two hits all afternoon. The Jaguars came in near the bottom of the league in most pass-rushing statistics, so their lack of push wasn’t shocking. But we saw more evidence that the Ravens have found their offensive line for the rest of the season, with Orlando Brown Jr. anchoring at left tackle and solid guard play from Bradley Bozeman and Ben Powers.
With the Jaguars so focused on Jackson’s runs, this wasn’t the Ravens’ most efficient ground game (4.3 yards per carry), but they’re playing offense the way they intended to coming into the season.
“Those guys have been blocking their tail off whether it’s running or passing,” Jackson said. “They’ve just got to keep doing what they’re doing, and we’ve just got to keep doing what we’re doing on offense as a whole group.”
On the other side of the ball, Jaguars running back James Robinson was priority No. 1 for a defensive interior operating without Campbell. The Ravens answered the bell, with nose tackle Brandon Williams delivering a “dominant” performance in Harbaugh’s words and rookie defensive tackle Justin Madubuike playing a second consecutive strong game to complement stalwart defensive end Derek Wolfe. The Ravens were determined not to surrender 4.9 yards per carry as they did in Cleveland, and they held Robinson to 35 on 16 carries.
“We knew coming in that they had a great running back, and they had a great running game, and the offensive line was good double-team blockers and good combination blockers,” Williams said. “So, we definitely honed in on that and made sure that we didn’t allow this week what happened last week.”
On the edge, Ngakoue and Matthew Judon quieted recent concerns about their lack of production with a strip-sack and a safety, respectively.
Whether they looked inside or outside, the Jaguars found little room to breathe.
Patrick Queen reminded us that, in his case, speed kills.
For all his confidence and big-play statistics, the 2020 first-round draft pick has endured some humbling weeks this season. Blockers have overpowered him at times, and adept play-action quarterbacks have lured him into no man’s land.
In a city where Ray Lewis and C.J. Mosley fired right out of the gate as Pro Bowl-caliber middle linebackers, it’s easy to forget that Queen is 21 years old and never started for a full season at LSU.
In his best moments this season — and his first half against the Jaguars moves right to the top of the list — he has offered bold displays of the talent that bewitched the Ravens in April. We heard from draft scouts that he’d make plays from the backfield to the sidelines to the secondary. His acceleration and hunger to reach the ball would carry him past the inevitable growing pains.
Indeed, you’ll look past lapses when a linebacker produces a sack, two quarterback hits and three tackles for loss in one half of a must-win game. “Fired up — that’s it, really,” Queen said of his mindset Sunday. “Just, ‘See ball, get ball.’”
We don’t know whether Queen will grow into a signal-calling rock at the center of great Ravens defenses. Even if he fulfills every bit of his potential, he’ll be different from Lewis and Mosley. But there are three very good reasons to bet on him: He plays with infectious confidence, he’s eager to scrutinize his weaknesses and he moves like a demon.
By this time next week, we’ll have a good read on the Ravens’ playoff fate.
Despite the lofty postseason odds we’re seeing from analytics bastions such as Football Outsiders and FiveThirtyEight, there’s still plenty we don’t know with two weeks left on the NFL schedule. The Ravens have work remaining, as do their chief rivals in the AFC wild-card race. No one seems eager to dispense gifts in the form of unexpected losses. But the cone of possibility will shrink in important ways next weekend.
First things first, the Ravens will play the most difficult game left on their schedule when they welcome the New York Giants to M&T Bank Stadium. The Giants remain in the NFC East race, so we can presume they’ll play with more urgency than the Jaguars or the Ravens’ Week 17 opponent, the Cincinnati Bengals. They haven’t beaten a good team other than the Seattle Seahawks in Week 13, and by Football Outsiders’ DVOA, they’re far closer to the bottom of the pecking order than the top. But they’re solid enough on defense and special teams to drag the Ravens into an ugly game.
The last weekend of 2020 will be just as important for what happens in other cities.
The Pittsburgh Steelers could clear the Ravens’ path to the playoffs by defeating the Indianapolis Colts at Heinz Field. The Steelers will still have a shot to earn a first-round bye, so there’s no reason to believe they’ll give the Colts a present two days after Christmas. This game might represent the Ravens’ single best chance to receive the help they need, because the Steelers could have less reason to go full-bore in Week 17 against the Browns.
What about those Browns? They get the hopeless New York Jets next Sunday, so the Ravens probably won’t receive any relief on that front.
Meanwhile, the Miami Dolphins will travel to Las Vegas for a matchup that held more promise before the Raiders started giving up 38 points per game. The Dolphins will face the formidable Buffalo Bills in Week 17, but with the AFC East already clinched, it’s not clear what Sean McDermott’s team will be playing for. In other words, Miami’s remaining tests look stiffer on paper than they might be in reality.
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So the Ravens are like Joe Biden on election night. They didn’t secure a playoff spot with overwhelming force. They have good reason to feel hopeful about the results that have yet to come in. But they’re due for a couple of nervous weeks.
“We’ve just got to keep focused on what we have in front of us,” Jackson said.