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In 31-17 win vs. Washington, Ravens show they’re a good team that can get a lot better

LANDOVER — The Ravens did not look like the NFL’s best team after the fourth week of the 2019 season. They were 2-2, coming off a humbling home loss to a division rival, dealing with reports about a locker room blow-up, trying to figure out a way forward before their season went under.

It was only after the calendar flipped to October that the Ravens flipped a switch. They started to play pretty well. Then they started to play like a juggernaut. When the regular season ended, the Ravens, winners of 12 straight, were Super Bowl favorites. Not a lot of people were wondering what had gone wrong in Week 4.

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So even after four weeks of imperfect play, these Ravens are, by one measure, one step ahead. After a 31-17 victory over the woebegone Washington Football Team on Sunday at FedEx Field, the Ravens enter Week 5 with a 3-1 record and a manageable October slate. They’ll host the 1-2-1 Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday and travel to Philadelphia to face the 0-2-1 Eagles the week after. They should enter their Week 7 bye with a 5-1 record.

Whether another October evolution is next is still unclear. The Ravens' eighth straight road win was evidence for two arguments, both of them compelling. There is the glass-half-full view: that the Ravens won easily against a better-than-expected Washington team despite a rejiggered offensive line, that the pass rush has finally started to emerge, that the Ravens' special teams are unmatched.

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And there is the glass-half-empty view: that the 2019 Ravens would’ve buried a team of Washington’s quality with one eye closed, that the game was only a few big plays away from a nail-biter of a fourth-quarter.

Whatever their perception, the Ravens are 3-1. Not a lot of teams can say that. Last year’s Ravens couldn’t.

“Just a really big win; that’s really an important win,” coach John Harbaugh said after the Ravens improved to 4-3 all time against Washington, ending a two-game losing streak. "Washington played well, very well. [They] forced two turnovers on us and did some good things with their offensive game plan. …

“But our guys played hard. We ran the ball well, made some huge, very important conversions in the pass game, but that was kind of the key to the pass game right there. We didn’t have gigantic plays, but we certainly had conversion plays.”

The Ravens' biggest plays Sunday had a 2019 feel to them. They also happened early enough that a 2019-like blowout seemed possible.

Late in the first quarter, Marlon Humphrey ripped a ball loose from Washington running back J.D. McKissic after a catch in the flat, the All-Pro cornerback’s second forced fumble in three games and first since signing his megadeal Thursday. Cornerback Marcus Peters' recovery gave the Ravens a short field and the offense needed just two plays to cover 34 yards and take a 7-0 lead.

Seven minutes later, the Ravens were running away from Washington (1-3). Facing a third-and-4 at midfield, offensive coordinator Greg Roman called for a zone read, the same type of run Jackson had turned into the defining highlight of his NFL Most Valuable Player season. Jackson did not break ankles and drop jaws Sunday, as he had on his 47-yard, must-see dash against the Bengals last season, but both ended in the same place: the end zone.

“Coach was calling the right plays,” Jackson said of his career-long 50-yard touchdown run, which doubled the Ravens' lead to 14-0. “Our offense line did great. Our offensive unit just played pretty good today to get the 'W' and have, obviously, a long run.”

“Playing with Lamar is huge,” Humphrey said. “You can never really doubt him.”

Washington answered with a 10-play, 75-yard touchdown drive, borrowing from some of what ailed the Ravens in their “Monday Night Football” loss to the Kansas City Chiefs. Quarterback Dwayne Haskins Jr. threw a lot of screen passes Sunday, none of them more effective than a 40-yard catch-and-run by running back Antonio Gibson that moved Washington to the Ravens' 11-yard line.

A 2-yard touchdown run from Gibson halved the Ravens' deficit, but, in an empty stadium, it didn’t change the game. Jackson needed under three minutes to march 75 yards and restore the Ravens' double-digit margin with a 25-yard pass down the seam to tight end Mark Andrews, his first of two scores.

From there, though, the game was something of a stalemate. The Ravens often blitzed through defenses with their 2-minute-drill attack last season. This year has been more of a struggle: a four-and-out before halftime against the Houston Texans, then a fumble against the Chiefs and two bad incompletions to end the half Monday night.

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On Sunday, Jackson threw his first interception of the season after what he said was too quick of a pass with just over half a minute left. Washington cornerback Kendall Fuller, a Baltimore native, made the pick near the sideline after wide receiver Miles Boykin didn’t get his head around in time to see it.

Against Washington’s talented but injury-depleted pass rush, Jackson was well protected for much of the afternoon. Without All-Pro left tackle Ronnie Stanley available to guard his blind side, Jackson bounced back from a career low in passing yards to finish 14-for-21 for 193 yards and two touchdowns. He missed receivers open downfield but also made plays outside the pocket. There was good and bad, just as there was early last season.

“It’s still early in the season,” said Jackson, who added a game-high 53 rushing yards. “We just have to keep pushing, keep grinding, keep playing Ravens ball. That’s what we’ve been doing.”

The Ravens finished with just 350 yards of total offense on an impressive 6.3 yards per play; Washington had 343 on 4.9 yards per play. To win as comfortably as the Ravens did — they led by as many as 18 points in the third quarter and 21 in the fourth — they had to seize on every advantage they could.

Jackson’s long run helped. So did Humphrey’s early strip, the defense’s seventh forced turnover in four games this season. Wide receiver Marquise “Hollywood” Brown had 64 first-half receiving yards and 86 overall. Outside linebacker Matthew Judon had his first two sacks of the year. Kicker Justin Tucker nailed a 46-yard field-goal attempt, pushing his perfect mark to 8-for-8 this season.

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But bold (and not-so-bold) decisions helped swing the game, too. Punter Sam Koch’s 15-yard completion to Boykin on a fake punt late in the second quarter kept the Ravens' third touchdown drive alive. “He’s clutch as can be,” Harbaugh said of Koch, who improved to 7-for-7 for 82 yards in his career.

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Late in the third quarter, down 28-10 and 15 yards from the end zone, Washington had a chance to make it a two-score game. Then it all went to crud: a false-start penalty on first down, an 18-yard loss on a sack immediately thereafter by outside linebacker Jaylon Ferguson, and a pair of completions that took Washington to the Ravens' 13.

Rather than kick a field goal, Washington coach Ron Rivera sent Haskins (32-for-45 for 314 yards) back out. The former Maryland commit and 2019 first-round pick didn’t even test the end zone; he settled for a check-down pass that got nowhere close.

Despite conceding a second touchdown, helped by backup quarterback Robert Griffin III’s fourth-quarter interception, the Ravens were in control. They ran the ball, ate up the clock and stayed healthy. That was their strategy all last year, and it was good enough to get the AFC’s top seed.

This year, the Ravens know, they are catching no one by surprise. Tight end Mark Andrews (three catches for 57 yards) said afterward that “everyone kind of has a bull’s-eye on us.” Still, they’re 3-1, and they could be playing a lot better. There are worse situations to be in.

“The season is young,” Judon said. “This was a good team win. We just have to peak at the right time. Whenever you can get a 'W' in the NFL, you’ll take it.”

BENGALS@RAVENS

Sunday, 1 p.m.

TV: Ch. 13

Radio: 1090 AM, 97.9 FM

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