As the Ravens woke for game day on Nov. 18, 2018, their record stood at 4-5. They languished in third place in the AFC North. If they were to begin a resurrection, they would have to do it behind a rookie quarterback named Lamar Jackson who’d never started an NFL game.
They scraped by the Cincinnati Bengals that afternoon on a fourth-quarter field goal by Justin Tucker. In his news conference the next day, coach John Harbaugh voiced the team’s defiance: “We’re not dead yet. Sorry.”
He was right. The 2018 Ravens found a new identity under Jackson and took advantage of a favorable schedule to win six of their last seven games and a division title.
So what will Harbaugh say if his team beats the Dallas Cowboys on Tuesday night?
Again, his Ravens find themselves in need of a rally, trying to rebound from a three-game losing streak as they cling to hopes for a playoff spot that once seemed all but assured. This has turned into a nightmare season in many regards, marred by stagnant offense, injuries to vital starters and a COVID-19 outbreak that exposed lapses in the team’s pandemic protocols.
But as down as the 6-5 Ravens seem, there are reasons to think they might yet rise. They found iron at their core last week as an undermanned team hunting an upset against the unbeaten Pittsburgh Steelers. They’re regaining their health, with Jackson and other starters expected to return from a one-game exile on the reserve/COVID-19 list. Just as importantly, they’ll face one of the NFL’s easiest schedules over the next five weeks, with only one above-.500 opponent remaining.
Though they’re currently the ninth team in a race for seven AFC playoff spots, many projection systems — from ESPN to Football Outsiders — gave them better-than-even chances of making the postseason going into Week 13. Those odds grew longer when all of their rivals won Sunday, but the Ravens hardly sound ready to accept last rites.
“This team has a ‘no back down’ mentality, and I love it,” rookie middle linebacker Patrick Queen said. “The stuff that we talk about in the locker room, we all have the same mission in mind; that’s to get down this road, win all these games, go to the playoffs and get hot and just become that team that we know we can be. We let some games slip, and we all know that as a team. We just want to get better from this point on. That’s the only thing that’s on our mind, just beating the Cowboys and going on this little streak that we need.”
Though Harbaugh usually steers conversation back to the game immediately ahead, he said the Ravens won’t ignore the reality that they can’t afford any more lapses over the next month.
“I think the guys understand the big picture,” he said. “You try to understand the immediate, important things that we need to think about — what’s important now — and then you try to have a long view as well.”
Five games to change the story of their season.
The path will begin Tuesday night against the 3-8 Cowboys, who give up more points than any team in the NFL and start Andy Dalton — a familiar foe from his days as a Cincinnati Bengal — at quarterback. Like the Ravens, the Cowboys began this season with visions of a possible Super Bowl run. But they fell hard and fast, undermined by that porous defense, an injury-ravaged offensive line and a season-ending ankle fracture to star quarterback Dak Prescott. Dallas retains faint hopes of a divisional title but only because the rest of the NFC East is also in shambles.
Six days after the Cowboys, the Ravens will face the best team remaining on their schedule, the 9-3 Cleveland Browns. Sounds weird to say after decades of ineptitude on the shores of Lake Erie, but the Browns have found a genuinely successful formula pairing the league’s best rushing offense with pass rusher Myles Garrett and respected head coach Kevin Stefanski. Even erratic quarterback Baker Mayfield hit his stride in Cleveland’s 41-35 win Sunday over the Tennessee Titans. On the other hand, the Browns have largely feasted on the dregs of the league, and the Ravens did beat them 38-6 in Week 1.
After their Cleveland trip, the Ravens will finally return to playing football on Sunday with a home date against the 1-11 Jacksonville Jaguars. Though the Jaguars have lost their past two by a combined five points, they entered the weekend with the worst defense in the NFL, according to Football Outsiders’ DVOA ratings, and their offense, led by journeyman quarterback Mike Glennon, isn’t much better. Their fans don’t even want them to win as they chase the New York Jets to the bottom in the race for likely No. 1 overall draft pick Trevor Lawrence.
Two days after Christmas, the Ravens will host the New York Giants, who aren’t the easy mark they appeared to be over a 1-7 first half. Led by a top-10 defense that always plays hard for first-year coach Joe Judge, the Giants have overcome a torn ACL to superstar running Saquon Barkley and frequent turnovers by quarterback Daniel Jones to take control of that putrid NFC East. They even won in Seattle on Sunday. Could they spoil a late-season Ravens push? Unlikely, according to Football Outsiders, which had the Ravens 17 spots ahead of the Giants in overall DVOA going into the weekend.
The Ravens will conclude their regular season in Cincinnati, where the Bengals’ newfound optimism blinked out when No. 1 overall pick Joe Burrow suffered an ugly knee injury in a Week 11 loss to the Washington Football Team. The Bengals have scored a combined 43 points over their past four games and ranked second to last in DVOA going into Week 13. So the Ravens, who beat them 27-3 in October, will be heavily favored.
The bad news for the Ravens is that with eight AFC teams already at seven wins or more, they don’t control their fate, even if they win out. A 10-6 team usually makes the postseason, and it seemed even more likely going into this year with an extra playoff berth available in each conference. But with so many contenders fattening up on the bottom feeders of the AFC and the NFC East, it seems 11-5 might be the bar for entry.
At least the Ravens’ mission is clear; they can’t lose again in a season that’s already fallen short of their grand expectations.
“Yes, we definitely … take a look at the big picture overall in understanding kind of what needs to take place,” left tackle Orlando Brown Jr. said. “But in reality, right now, we can’t play all five games [that] we have left. We’ve only got Dallas, right now. So, that’s been, really, the main focus; making sure that we’re as prepared [as we can be] for this game.”
Tuesday, 8:05 p.m.
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Line: Ravens by 8½