To understand the NFL’s strangest dynasty, start with its strange beginnings: Five years before the Ravens won their 19th straight preseason game, they won their first by starting quarterback Ryan Mallett, who’d replaced Jimmy Clausen as Joe Flacco’s backup nine months earlier, in a game against Cam Newton, the defending NFL Most Valuable Player who’d led the Carolina Panthers to the Super Bowl six months earlier.
At the start of a record-tying streak no one could’ve predicted, in a mid-August game no one should remember, the Ravens did not look like the Nelson Muntz of the NFL preseason that they’ve become, bullying one opponent after another, year after year. Newton opened the game with an impressive scoring drive. The Ravens went three-and-out. Mallett’s first two passes were incomplete, and his third was intercepted. Carolina led 10-0 after the first quarter.
But by night’s end in Baltimore, the Ravens had rallied to end a three-game preseason losing streak. Kenneth Dixon was their leading rusher, Darren Waller their leading receiver, Matthew Judon their leading tackler, and Mallett their leading passer. Coach John Harbaugh opened his postgame news conference by quoting O.J. Brigance, the former Ravens linebacker and current senior adviser to player engagement.
“Winning is always good,” Harbaugh said after the 22-19 victory. “I agree with that. ... It’s always good to win. And we want to do a lot more of that this year. I was proud of the guys for that.”
The Ravens did a lot more winning in that 2016 preseason. And the year after that. And the year after that. And the year after that. And … well, not the year after that … but with Saturday’s 20-3 road win over the Panthers, the Ravens tied the Vince Lombardi-era Green Bay Packers’ NFL record for consecutive preseason victories.
A victory Saturday over the Washington Football Team in Landover would mark their fifth straight undefeated preseason — the 2020 slate was nixed amid the coronavirus pandemic — and extend the longest unbeaten streak of the Super Bowl era to 1,843 days.
How much it matters depends on whom you ask. Before the Ravens faced the New Orleans Saints in their 2021 preseason opener, defensive tackle Brandon Williams was asked whether he was aware of the breadth of the Ravens’ winning streak. He said he was not. Told it was 17 games long, he raised his eyebrows. “Wow, that’s a long time,” he said with mild amusement. “That’s a long time.”
On Tuesday, Washington coach Ron Rivera was asked whether he would mention the Ravens’ streak to his team. “Does somebody want to use my catchphrase, please?” Rivera asked, looking around his news conference. “That’s interesting,” was his answer, a reference to his oft-cited message to his team to focus on “what’s important, not what’s interesting.”
Rivera, whose team split its first two games, said he didn’t see any value in preseason wins and losses. His focus is “all about how they play.” Harbaugh wouldn’t disagree; the Ravens’ health and execution are paramount, he said Monday.
That doesn’t mean he considers the streak itself, powered by dozens of players who never played a regular-season snap for the team, without consequence.
“There are going to be people that say this [streak] doesn’t mean anything, and there are going to be people who look at it and say, ‘Wow, that’s something,’ " he said after Saturday’s win. “So I think everything is something. I’m of the belief that everything has meaning in life. So I guess you can take two things; nothing has meaning, and everything has meaning. So if we’re doing it, it’s worth doing, it matters and it’s worth doing well.”
And the Ravens have done it exceptionally well. Despite what Harbaugh described as less-than-typical playing time for the team’s starters, the Ravens have won their 19 straight preseason games by an average of nearly 12 points, outscoring opponents by a combined 440-216.
Not every perfect preseason has led to a postseason appearance; the Ravens went 8-8 in 2016 and 9-7 in 2017 before earning back-to-back division titles, including the AFC’s top seed in 2019. But what wins games in the regular season also wins games in the preseason. The numbers behind their streak are testament to what Harbaugh calls “good, fundamental football”:
- The Ravens have both rushed for more yards and passed for more yards than their opponents.
- The Ravens have committed 20 turnovers and forced 35.
- The Ravens have converted 362 first downs and allowed 280.
- The Ravens have allowed 36 sacks and posted 57 on defense.
- The Ravens have been called for 1,171 penalty yards, while opponents have been called for 1,463.
- The Ravens have made all 39 extra-point tries and 45 of 52 field-goal attempts.
“Like [defensive coordinator Don] ‘Wink’ [Martindale] said, if there’s a scoreboard out there, we’re trying to win,” outside linebacker Tyus Bowser said Monday. “It’s as simple as that. That’s just the vibe, and that’s the type of mindset we have as a team.”
“We want to win,” quarterback Lamar Jackson, who could make his preseason debut against Washington, said Tuesday. “We don’t care what it is; we want to win. This is a very competitive team.”
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Harbaugh’s mind turned toward the past after Saturday’s record-tying win. He thought of faded-glory players like former practice squad quarterback Josh Woodrum, who went 25-for-36 for 321 yards and two touchdowns in 2017, including the go-ahead score in an eventual 13-9 win over the Buffalo Bills.
And Harbaugh thought of Lombardi’s Packers, whom he invoked in the locker room celebration and in his postgame news conference. “It’s something that only one other team has ever done,” he said of the streak, which Green Bay first accomplished from 1959 to 1962. “I’d say that’s notable.”
More notable is what the Packers did later in 1962: They won an NFL championship, Lombardi’s second in a row. The Ravens aren’t there yet. They’re still two-plus weeks from the regular season. All they can worry about is the last game of another preseason schedule. Twenty straight wins won’t have them ticketed for Super Bowl glory. But it probably won’t hurt their chances, either.
Saturday, 6 p.m.
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