As the question made its way to John Harbaugh late Sunday afternoon, the Ravens coach looked offscreen. After a 40-14 win Sunday over the Jacksonville Jaguars, quarterback Lamar Jackson and wide receiver Marquise “Hollywood” Brown were standing off to the side at a virtual postgame news conference, waiting for their turn to talk, about as patient as students counting down the seconds until school was out.
“I got my two guys over here distracting me, giggling and passing notes,” Harbaugh said. He couldn’t help but chuckle himself.
It was hard not to be impressed by the Ravens’ most dominant win in months, a wire-to-wire smackdown of one of the NFL’s worst teams. It was also hard not to laugh Sunday, the game’s moments of levity arriving almost as quickly as Ravens touchdowns. There was an everlasting hug, a few leisurely strolls into the end zone, a fumble turned punt by a full-time kicker, even an offensive lineman running wild in the open field.
Harbaugh called the game “one of the best jobs that we’ve had the whole time we’ve been here.” In the Week 15 leg of a postseason chase that will extend into early January, the Ravens had controlled what they could control. Only a handful of games outside Baltimore could put a damper on the highs and high jinks of a third straight win. And they might’ve.
Because while the Ravens (9-5) were happy to extend Jacksonville’s losing streak to 13 games Sunday, they would’ve been happier to see a few other results fall their way. But a Miami Dolphins team missing its top three receivers beat the New England Patriots. And the Houston Texans were denied a potential last-minute, game-tying touchdown by Indianapolis Colts linebacker Darius Leonard’s goal-line punch-out. Only a Cleveland Browns loss Sunday night to the New York Giants could nudge the Ravens into the seven-team playoff field before Week 16.
That didn’t quite kill their postgame buzz. According to FiveThirtyEight’s projections, the Ravens’ strong playoff odds, at 91%, remained nearly unchanged. But after their most impressive stretch of the season — double-digit wins over the Dallas Cowboys and Jaguars (1-13) sandwiching an instant-classic comeback against the Browns (9-4) — a potential Super Bowl contender is still on the outside looking in.
For now, anyway.
“We’ve just got to keep focused on what we have in front of us,” Jackson said after his best passing performance (133.1 rating) since Week 1. “We’ve got the Giants in front of us now. We’ve got to focus on those guys, get on the film, and watch those guys — and pray next week, the ones we need to lose, lose, because we’ve still got to try to get to the playoffs. That’s our goal. But one game at a time. We can’t peak too soon.”
These Ravens won’t be expected to lose anytime soon. Their Week 16 opponent, the visiting Giants, have a middling defense and could be without ailing quarterback Daniel Jones. A Week 17 trip to Cincinnati will feature a Bengals team that hasn’t won since three weeks before quarterback Joe Burrow suffered a season-ending knee injury.
If those two games play out as expected, there will be a lot of time for scoreboard-watching. The Ravens would jump into a wild-card spot Saturday night if the Dolphins (9-5) lose to the Las Vegas Raiders. If Miami wins, the Ravens would need either the New York Jets to stun Cleveland (9-4) or, more likely, the Pittsburgh Steelers to knock off the Colts (10-4). And if all three wild-card contenders lose, the Ravens would climb from the first team out to the AFC’s top wild-card spot.
So much has changed in the weeks since a three-game losing streak and coronavirus outbreak threatened to derail their season. The most unstable element in their postseason push is no longer the Ravens’ play. It’s the teams blocking their way to a third straight playoff appearance.
“Man, I’ll tell you this: I think these guys already know what’s up,” wide receiver Dez Bryant said. “Everybody knows the mentality. We have a shot. We have to play good football from here on out, and I think that’s everybody’s focus. We don’t care about anything else; we just want to play good football and give ourselves a chance.”
The Jaguars make a lot of teams look good, and the Ravens were more than happy to cooperate. After an interception by Jackson on the game’s opening drive, the offense ended its next seven drives with either a touchdown or field-goal attempt.
Against one of the NFL’s worst run defenses, the Ravens finished with 159 yards and two scores. Against one of the NFL’s worst pass defenses, Jackson went 17-for-22 for 243 yards and three touchdowns. Eight Ravens caught a pass, none more often than Brown, who had six for a game-high 98 yards.
No pass mattered more than the one Bryant caught to send the Ravens into halftime with a 26-0 lead. His 11-yard touchdown was his first since 2017, and the celebration was as much Bryant’s as the team’s. Bryant said he thought of his young daughter as he threw up the “X.” Teammates honored him with their own rendition. Harbaugh embraced Bryant as he came off the field, hugging the 32-year-old long enough to remind him about just how far he’d come.
“Our guys came out and were ready to play,” said Harbaugh, who improved to 12-2 in December since 2018, the NFL’s best mark. “We talked about playing a clean game. We talked about playing a fundamentally sound game, and we talked about playing a physical game, and they did that. Our players did that. They responded in a big way, and that’s to be commendable. They were rewarded for that.”
The Ravens’ last game before Christmas was full of good cheer and welcome gifts. Running back J.K. Dobbins (team-high 64 rushing yards) wasn’t touched on a 2-yard score in the second quarter. Neither was Jackson on a 5-yard rush one quarter later. Defensive end Yannick Ngakoue, facing the team he’d demanded a trade from, finished with two of the Ravens’ five sacks and forced a fumble.
In every phase of the game, the Ravens were superior. Despite a solid game from quarterback Gardner Minshew II (22-for-29 for 226 yards and two touchdowns), Jackonsville finished with just 267 yards of total offense. Its fourth downs were disastrous, with two failed conversions in the first half and a special teams misadventure in the fourth quarter. In one sequence, Jaguars kicker Aldrick Rosas, filling in for punter Logan Cooke (illness), bobbled a snap, booted an ineligible downfield kick and took a punishing hit from Justice Hill.
All the Ravens could do was smile. When Jackson had fumbled after a third-down sack just minutes earlier, rookie right tackle Tyre Phillips picked up the bouncing ball and then started bouncing off would-be tacklers himself, covering 22 yards as he rumbled past the sticks, the longest “carry” of the day. Seven plays later, the Ravens had their fifth touchdown and second straight 40-point game.
It was a win that wouldn’t have looked out of place a year ago, when the Ravens took a buzz saw to the NFL as they approached the playoffs. On Sunday, the blowout offered a reminder of the power the Ravens can wield — and also of how much is still out of their control.
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