The Ravens’ defense had already found so much over the first 59 minutes of an eventual 13-3 win Sunday over the Carolina Panthers — ball-carriers at the line of scrimmage, quarterback Baker Mayfield in collapsed pockets, a surge of late-game turnovers — but late in the fourth quarter, there was still the matter of equilibrium.
The Panthers were in Ravens territory, a rare sight. They were encroaching on the red zone, threatening to spoil the defense’s season-best performance with some garbage time window dressing. And what good would the Ravens’ message of dominance be without the appropriate punctuation?
With one batted pass, balance was restored inside M&T Bank Stadium. On third-and-6 at the Ravens’ 31, Mayfield aimed a pass over the middle. Defensive lineman Broderick Washington got his hands up just in time; the ball ricocheted off his forearm and to outside linebacker Jason Pierre-Paul.
Another defensive stop. Another turnover. Another win, ugly as it might’ve been.
“It felt incredible; it felt like Ravens football, honestly,” inside linebacker Patrick Queen (game-high 12 tackles) said after Carolina (3-8) was held to 205 yards, the fewest the Ravens (7-3) have allowed in a game this season. “[The] offense wasn’t at the standard at the beginning of the game, then they finally picked it up at the end and put points on the board. Then, we just kept going out there and doing our thing. We weren’t even focused on the offense; we were just on defense talking about, ‘Let’s do our job, simple as that.’”
Not much in the Ravens’ fourth straight win was simple, or even predictable. In their first game back from a bye, they scored just three points in the first half but entered halftime with a lead anyway. They finished with three turnovers but had none in the game’s first three quarters. They took a double-digit lead for the 10th time in as many games this season, but needed 52 minutes against a 12 1/2-point underdog to get there.
The only stable element amid Baltimore’s whipping winds and near-freezing temperatures was a defense looking more and more like one of the NFL’s best. In the two games since trading for All-Pro inside linebacker Roquan Smith and getting back outside linebacker Tyus Bowser, the Ravens have allowed one offensive touchdown, 16 points and 448 total yards (4.3 per play), a healthy chunk of which has come with the outcome well in hand. They’ve forced four turnovers and posted eight sacks.
The New Orleans Saints, the defense’s fodder in Week 9, are not an offensive juggernaut. The Panthers, forced Sunday to return to Mayfield with starting quarterback P.J. Walker sidelined by an ankle injury, are even more impotent. But the Ravens defense that danced off the field Sunday, having forced a turnover on downs or takeaway on four straight Carolina drives, looked nothing like the one that flailed about during its early-season doldrums.
“Last night, we were talking as a defense, and [defensive coordinator] Mike [Macdonald] asked us what we were thinking going into this game, and everybody said the same thing; we wanted to have a goose egg today,” said cornerback Marlon Humphrey, who had a fourth-quarter interception, tying his career high with three picks in one season. “You can’t be too mad with three [points allowed], but we’re really trying to chase Ravens defenses [from] the past that have just showed an elite greatness. So that’s kind of what we’re chasing, and we’re looking better and better every week.”
The defense saved its best for last, and the Ravens needed every bit of it. After kicker Justin Tucker nailed a go-ahead 37-yard field goal midway through the fourth quarter — his 65th straight make in the fourth quarter and overtime — Carolina took over, trailing 6-3. The Panthers faced a long road to the end zone. They’d punted four times and managed just four first downs in the first half. Their only points thus far had come on a penalty-aided 40-yard drive in the third quarter.
Cornerback Marcus Peters put Carolina out of its misery early. On the Panthers’ second play of the drive, he ripped the ball loose from wide receiver Shi Smith after a short gain; only a premature whistle from a nearby official, who’d initially called the play dead before the fumble, kept Humphrey from a scoop-and-score.
That was too much of an opportunity for an otherwise wasteful Ravens offense to squander. Over the game’s first three quarters, Carolina had stymied their rushing attack with extra bodies in the box and harassed Jackson, who’d missed practice Friday with a stomach bug. Trips into Panthers territory had tended to end poorly, undone by penalties and poor execution, including an interception by Jackson. Wide receiver Demarcus Robinson (career-high nine catches for 128 yards) was the lone bright spot.
After Peters’ strip, though, the Ravens could see an escape route. The end zone was just 31 yards away. A 29-yard carry by running back Kenyan Drake (10 carries for a game-high 46 yards) got them close. After a penalty, Jackson’s 1-yard plunge got them into the end zone and out of trouble.
“That November, December football, you just find a way to win to get in the playoffs,” said Jackson, who finished 24-for-33 for 209 yards and added 11 carries for 31 yards. The Ravens finished with 308 yards overall (4.7 per play).
He added: “I feel like we played all right; we just have to put points on the board. It’s the NFL; sometimes it won’t be those high-scoring games. I don’t think we ever had a game where we scored this amount of points with a victory, but hopefully, it doesn’t happen like that for the rest of the season. Hopefully, we put points on the board like we’re used to doing.”
From there, the Ravens’ defense continued to atone for its earlier fourth-quarter collapses. Carolina went four-and-out on its next drive. After that, Humphrey intercepted a pass for Smith. After that, Pierre-Paul got his pick.
There was nowhere to go, nowhere to hide. Carolina averaged 2.1 yards per carry and 4.6 yards per pass attempt. Mayfield was sacked four times.
“I think we’ve been steadily improving [on defense] all year because everyone comes to work every day and just tries to communicate and tries to do their best,” coach John Harbaugh said. “When you do that and you work together, you have a chance to improve, and that’s basically what guys have done.”
“They do what they do, and they do it well,” said Mayfield, a former Ravens nemesis with the Cleveland Browns, who finished 21-for-33 for 196 yards. “They executed, and we didn’t make enough plays.”
The Ravens’ schedule will give them some more margin for error. Next up is a road game against the 3-7 Jacksonville Jaguars, who will be returning from a bye. After that, a return trip to Baltimore, where the Ravens will face the disappointing Denver Broncos (3-7). The only team remaining on the Ravens’ schedule with a winning record is still the Cincinnati Bengals (6-4).
They will breathe easier if they get good injury news. Left tackle Ronnie Stanley (ankle) and safety Kyle Hamilton (knee), two of the team’s best players over the past month, left in the third quarter and did not return. Harbaugh did not have an update on either player’s status afterward.
The Ravens will need all the help they can get as they eye a potential postseason run. On Sunday, their offense was just good enough. Their defense was more than good enough.
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“That’s what it’s all about right now,” Jackson said. “Some of them are going to be ugly, some of them are going to be pretty, but a win is a win.”
Ravens at Jaguars
Sunday, 1 p.m.
TV: Ch. 13
Radio: 97.9 FM, 101.5 FM, 1090 AM
Line: Ravens by 4