The celebration was almost muted, as it had been the week before, when a playoff berth was clinched with a month left in the season. The Ravens were AFC North champions for the second straight year, and at the end Thursday night, it looked almost like just another preseason win, quarterback Lamar Jackson relaxing on the sideline, M&T Bank Stadium quickly emptying, a franchise fixated on the future.
The Ravens’ 42-21 win Thursday over the New York Jets was remarkable for the normalcy of the historic proceedings: Of course the Ravens had extended their franchise-record winning streak to 10 games. Of course Jackson had broken Michael Vick’s single-season rushing record for a quarterback. Of course the team had repeated as king of the North for the first time since 2011-12.
Few would dispute that the Ravens (12-2) have entered the regular season’s home stretch as the NFL’s best team, and their ambitions match that esteem. They didn’t cheer too loudly when they secured their playoff ticket Sunday. They didn’t rush the field in ecstasy as the seconds ticked away Thursday at M&T Bank Stadium. This was not like 2018, when the Ravens needed a Week 17 win to extend their season.
This is a year in which the Ravens’ potential is as big as their imagination, as immense as their star quarterback’s talent. Jackson finished 15-for-23 for 212 yards, posting his NFL-best third five-touchdown game this season, and added eight carries for a team-high 86 yards. He was not perfect, and nor were the Ravens, but it was more than enough. He can look like the NFL’s Most Valuable Player, and his team can look like a top Super Bowl contender, even in a game that felt substandard.
“Two different teams, two different mindsets, but last year, we worked so hard for that" division title, said Jackson, wearing a commemorative T-shirt at his postgame news conference that read, “The North is not enough.” “This year is a different team, different mindset. It’s a brotherhood going on right now, and we’ve just got to keep it going.”
After taking care of business Thursday, the Ravens can get some help over their open weekend. They would clinch their first first-round bye in the AFC playoffs since 2011 with a New England Patriots loss to the Cincinnati Bengals or a Kansas City Chiefs loss or tie to the Denver Broncos on Sunday. They’d clinch home-field advantage for the first time in franchise history if the Patriots lose and the Chiefs lose or tie.
In their days off, the Ravens can take their franchise record book in for a reprinting. Even without star left tackle Ronnie Stanley, even against a stout but injury-depleted Jets defense, every possession Thursday seemed to mark another Ravens high.
In the Ravens’ first drive, capped by running back Mark Ingram II’s 6-yard touchdown run, Jackson overtook Vick. (With two games still to go, he has 1,103 rushing yards.) In the second quarter, Mark Andrews caught his eighth touchdown pass this year, breaking Todd Heap and Dennis Pitta’s single-season franchise record for touchdowns by a tight end. That made it 21-7.
Later in the first half, the Ravens set a franchise record for rushing yards, breaking the mark of 2,674 set in Jamal Lewis’ epic 2003 season.
Wide receiver Marquise “Hollywood” Brown’s third-quarter toe-tap catch in the back of the end zone, his seventh score this season, tied Marlon Brown and Torrey Smith for the team rookie record for total touchdowns. The lead was up to 21.
Five minutes into the fourth quarter, more fireworks: Jackson found Ingram (13 carries for 76 yards) for a 10-yard catch-and-run score, extending the Ravens’ margin to 42-13. With another passing touchdown in Week 16 against the Cleveland Browns (6-7), the last team to beat the Ravens, Jackson will surpass quarterback Vinny Testaverde’s 1996 mark of 33, previously the most in Ravens history.
The night’s only drama passed quickly. After a slow third-quarter start and a failed third-and-short, Jackson stormed off to the sideline. He was agitated, upset. Over the Ravens’ next two possessions, he found Brown (four catches for 45 yards) for the touchdown, Andrews for 36 yards on a fourth-and-1 in Ravens territory and wide receiver Seth Roberts (three catches for a team-high 66 yards) on a 33-yard beauty that led him to the end zone.
“Lamar is a competitor,” said John Harbaugh, who won his fourth division title as Ravens coach. “He wasn’t mad at anybody. He was upset with the fact that we weren’t extending drives, we weren’t getting the job done. ‘We can be better’ — that’s exactly what he said. ‘We have to convert. We have to convert. We’re better than that.’ And they respect him, and they respond to it great. You love the fire and competitiveness, and he wants to be great on every single series.”
The result was no great shock. In Las Vegas, the game closed with the Ravens as 17-point favorites, tied for the greatest spread in team history, according to ESPN Stats and Info. The last time the Ravens were so heavily favored, they beat the Browns by 37.
Still, three weeks after the Ravens smashed the defending NFC champion Los Angeles Rams in prime time, they did not look for a good part of the night like world-beaters. On offense, they scored touchdowns on their first three possessions, a return to their hyperefficient form, and finished with 40-plus points for the fourth time in six weeks.
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But on defense, they struggled to get off the field in the first half. The Ravens entered halftime having allowed 199 yards to quarterback Sam Darnold (18-for-32 for 218 yards and two touchdowns overall) and a normally disjointed Jets offense, almost as many as they’d given up Sunday against the Buffalo Bills. The Ravens led 21-7 at halftime, but that felt misleading; the Jets (5-9) had had a field-goal attempt blocked by defensive lineman Patrick Ricard and failed to convert a fourth-down attempt in the red zone.
The final 31 minutes were more to coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale’s liking. The Ravens plugged the leaks, as they have so often this season. Safety Chuck Clark stopped a late second-quarter drive headed for the red zone with an interception, his first this season. Outside linebacker Tyus Bowser had a strip-sack, the Ravens’ second in as many games, that defensive end Jihad Ward recovered. After allowing just 310 yards Thursday, the Ravens still haven’t given up more than 350 since the last weekend of September.
“It wasn’t our best performance by any stretch, but we stuck to it,” cornerback Jimmy Smith said. “We grinded a win out, scored some points, played some good defense. We had our bad spots, but our team is very resilient. ... It is just encouraging to see our team always bounce back.”
Not even a forgettable night for the Ravens’ special teams could sour the mood afterward, though they came close. Several Jets returns offered a heart-in-your-throat moment. Kicker Justin Tucker missed his second extra-point attempt this season. And in the fourth quarter, after long snapper Morgan Cox was run over, linebacker Tarell Basham blocked Sam Koch’s punt, which linebacker B.J. Bello recovered and ran back 14 yards for a touchdown.
The Ravens have a week and a half to get right. After 15 impressive weeks, the team’s to-do list is shorter than most. The Ravens could wake up Monday morning not needing to win either of their final regular-season games. They could rest key starters in their season finale without fear. They could have the flexibility in the regular season to make a postseason run just a little bit easier.
After Thursday, the Ravens know at least one banner will be raised in Baltimore next year. They also know that’s not enough. It hasn’t been for a while now.
“We’re not done yet,” outside linebacker Matthew Judon said. “We ain’t done yet.”