As chaos unfolded across the NFL, a Week 17 brew of craziness spilling from Massachusetts to Texas, the brightest star on the league’s best team sat on the bench Sunday afternoon, smiling, staying warm.
Lamar Jackson and the Ravens had earned that privilege, the right to kick back, relax and rest up as all but a few of the NFL’s 31 other teams battled for something — a playoff berth, a chance at history, a better (or worse) slot in next year’s NFL draft order. There was not much on the line in Baltimore, not for the AFC North champions anyway.
The Ravens had already clinched home-field advantage through the conference playoffs and a first-round bye. There was nothing the Pittsburgh Steelers could do that would change that. But coach John Harbaugh had made clear that the priority in Sunday’s regular-season finale Sunday was still winning. Not even a sideline full of resting starters would keep the Ravens from making history.
With a 28-10 win at M&T Bank Stadium, the Ravens extended their franchise-record winning streak to 12 games and reached 14 wins for the first time in history, too. They will enter the postseason as Super Bowl favorites, by far the league’s hottest and most complete team.
“That puts an exclamation point on an excellent season,” said coach John Harbaugh, whose Ravens’ next test comes in the divisional round, against the lowest-seeded AFC team standing — either the No. 4 Houston Texans, No. 5 Buffalo Bills or No. 6 Tennessee Titans.
“I’m very, very proud of these players and these coaches. We’re about to move into the next part of the season, the most important part, obviously. But with this part behind us, it’s worth [it] to take a minute and look at it. This is one of the best teams — it’s the best team in football in the regular season this year.”
On Sunday, amid a steady downpour, all they could be was a spoiler — again. In Week 17 last season, the Ravens’ nail-biting home win over the Cleveland Browns had denied Pittsburgh a playoff appearance for the first time since 2013. After a stunning loss to the New York Jets in Week 16, the Steelers (8-8) entered the regular season’s final week needing a win and help.
They got neither. The Tennessee Titans, who entered Sunday with a hold on the AFC’s second wild-card bid, beat the Houston Texans, 35-14, to punch their playoff ticket. And Pittsburgh — well, the Steelers have had better teams.
Even with Jackson a spectator and running back Mark Ingram II recovering from a Week 16 calf injury, the Ravens pounded the ball like they’ve become accustomed to. The Ravens finished with 223 rushing yards, easily clearing the 93 they needed to break the New England Patriots’ 1978 team record of 3,165 yards.
Running back Gus Edwards finished with 21 carries for 130 yards, his career high reached without the help of Pro Bowl left tackle Ronnie Stanley and Pro Bowl right guard Marshal Yanda, both inactive. Rookie Justice Hill had 10 carries for 39 yards, also a career high.
“I was kind of trying not to think about [the NFL record] too much,” said Edwards, whose second-quarter carry broke the mark. The Ravens finished with 3,296 overall, just the second team in NFL history above 3,000 yards. “I just wanted to let it happen. It was in the back of everyone’s mind. I’m just proud we were able to do that. It’s something that we’ll be able to look back on and have forever. I’m really happy about that.”
Robert Griffin III, making his first start in three years, was the caretaker the Ravens needed him to be. He finished 11-for-21 for 96 yards and an interception and added eight carries for 50 yards. With Pro Bowl tight end Mark Andrews inactive and wide receiver Marquise “Hollywood” Brown’s playing time limited, tight end Hayden Hurst had two catches for 35 yards, and wide receiver Willie Snead IV added three for 22 yards.
That was enough with a snarling defense that held Pittsburgh to 168 total yards, by far the Steelers’ season low. Top wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster was held to two catches for 6 yards. Running back Benny Snell Jr., starting in place of the injured James Conner, had 18 carries for 91 yards and a touchdown.
Neither day must have felt as long as Devlin Hodges’; the Ravens blitzed the rookie quarterback like they had a bounty on him. He finished 9-for-25 for 95 yards and a 47.9 passer rating and, in the fourth quarter, was guilty of intentional grounding in the end zone. That gave the Ravens their final two points, giving a weird game a regular-seeming final score.
“We shut down the Steelers offense and were able to dominate the Steelers defense, especially in the trenches,” Griffin said. “That was awesome. It was awesome to watch. I was a fan.”
Nothing was normal for the Ravens, from the late-afternoon kickoff to the star-studded list of deactivated players (Pro Bowl safety Earl Thomas among them) to the results of the 1 p.m. games. With their last-minute loss to the Miami Dolphins, a result cheered on heartily inside the stadium, the New England Patriots squandered a first-round bye and will play in the wild-card round for the first time since January 2010. The Green Bay Packers, meanwhile, rallied from a two-touchdown halftime deficit against the Detroit Lions to claim the NFC’s No. 2 seed.
It all bled over. On their first possession Sunday, the Ravens at one point motioned Griffin out wide, leaving third-string quarterback Trace McSorley to replace him before running a zone read. In the game’s final quarter, kicker Justin Tucker nailed his fourth and final field-goal attempt by slipping and still hitting from 47 yards. Then defensive back Jordan Richards fell on a ball in the end zone after a botched Steelers punt for a touchdown. Finally, there was the safety.
“We are who we are,” said outside linebacker Matthew Judon, who had a strip-sack and three quarterback hits. “You know the effort; you know the physicality that’s going to come out of this locker room. So when we have to play, we strap them on, and then we go out there and play. We had some good players not playing today, but that doesn’t matter to us. Whoever’s strapped up, we had to get it done.”
Whatever’s next on the Ravens’ to-do list, it will be done far from the roaring crowds and media hordes that have followed this team from city to city. For the first time in over two months, they’ll get a weekend off. They can watch the AFC’s playoff race sort itself out.
The Ravens have bigger dreams. They’ve had them for a while now. Judon said afterward that the team’s record now is 0-0. It’s a new season. Even as this historic one ended Sunday, the Ravens adjusted their expectations. Late in the fourth quarter, Jimmy Smith was preparing on the sideline to douse Harbaugh in a Gatorade shower, a fitting reward for the possible NFL Coach of the Year.
Then a teammate stepped in. As Harbaugh found out later, fellow cornerback Marcus Peters had called it off.
“He said, ‘This is not the time for that,’ ” Harbaugh recalled. “ ‘We have more to do.’ ”