From Lamar Jackson’s closing argument in his MVP campaign to the Ravens setting the Super Bowl as their bar for success, here are five things we learned from their 31-15 victory over the Cleveland Browns.
The Ravens put a perfect exclamation on a near-perfect regular season.
Can you even remember how you felt about the 2019 Ravens on the evening of Sept. 29, after they’d lost by 15 on their home field and surrendered 533 yards of offense to the Browns?
The Ravens certainly remembered as they prepared for the rematch in Cleveland. Sure, they had bigger things to play for than revenge against a team that was barely clinging to postseason hopes. But they remembered their confusion and despair after that Week 4 defeat. They remembered how they grew closer rather than fracture in the days of self-examination that followed. So they could not have asked for a more serendipitous matchup in Week 16 of the greatest regular season in franchise history. The Ravens had a chance to clinch the first No. 1 seed in their history and buy themselves three weeks of rest against the one opponent that had embarrassed them.
They wobbled out of the gate, falling behind 6-0 as they squandered their best chances on penalties and uncharacteristic lapses in technique and imagination. But the Ravens reached peak acceleration in the last two minutes of the first half and ultimately did to the Browns what they’ve done to almost every opponent, burying them beneath an avalanche of rushing yards, opportunistic defense and a whole lot of Lamar Jackson.
There is no clear formula to stymie this team, which can win with finesse as easily as power, with defense as easily as offense, with a clutch field goal as easily as a first-quarter blitzkrieg. They don’t have to play their best to beat a talented opponent with room to spare.
Over their 11-game winning streak, the Ravens have taken on an inevitability achieved by only the best teams in any sport. No matter the details of a given game, you always feel them coming.
“It’s the best season I’ve been a part of,” said Pro Bowl guard Marshal Yanda, who’s won a Super Bowl and is not given to effusiveness.
Twelve weeks ago, the Ravens looked like a promising team that would have to fight its way to the finish line to earn another playoff appearance. But in the space between two Browns games, they created something exceptional: the greatest regular season in franchise history.
It took Lamar Jackson 110 seconds to show us why he’s MVP and how much he’s grown.
When the Ravens took over the ball with 1:50 remaining in the first half, they seemed momentarily bereft of the mojo that had carried them through the previous 10 games. For once, Jackson had been part of the problem.
On the team’s first drive, he threw wide of an open Mark Andrews on fourth-and-3. On drive No. 2, Jackson and Mark Ingram II botched their mesh exchange, which has been a reliable weapon all season, giving Cleveland the ball on the Ravens’ 45-yard-line. A holding call on cornerback Marcus Peters and an encroachment violation by safety Chuck Clark extended the Browns’ ensuing drive, which ended in the game’s first touchdown.
The Ravens needed something, anything to go right before halftime. Even a field goal would have been an improvement. But that’s small-time thinking, and Jackson is no small-timer.
Though Jackson had no timeouts to work with, he started by coolly hitting Ingram over the middle for 24 yards. On the very next play, he spotted blown coverage on Andrews and found his tight end for a 39-yard stroll into the end zone.
Can’t top that, right?
Well, the Ravens stopped the Browns on three straight plays and gave Jackson the ball back with 55 seconds to go. Again, he had no timeouts, but that did not stop him from finding Andrews over the middle for 24 yards. He picked up another 14 with a quick throw to Justice Hill, who moved the Ravens into field-goal range with 27 seconds to go.
At that point, Jackson could easily have gone conservative and taken the three points. But he patiently found Seth Roberts on a pair of sideline routes for another 23 yards. With 15 seconds to go, he had one more chance to fire at the end zone. On that play, he pulled out his wand, side stepping an oncoming defender and fitting a perfect back-shoulder throw between two defenders to his favorite target, Andrews.
After an error-ridden half, the Ravens went into the locker room with a 14-6 lead, knowing they’d receive the ball to start the second half.
The sequence was remarkable not just for the results but for the fact it hinged on skills Jackson did not command at this time last year. As Tony Romo pointed out on CBS, this was not Jackson as Michael Vick; it was Jackson as Tom Brady — unhurried, decisive, deadly accurate.
It was a masterful closing argument in Jackson’s campaign for Most Valuable Player, which will almost certainly end in his favor the night before the Super Bowl.
His statistics — 3,127 passing yards, 1,206 rushing yards, a team-record 36 touchdown passes against just six interceptions — are otherworldly, as are the time-stopping fakes that will live on in highlight reels. But this performance reiterated just how wrong skeptics were in saying Jackson could never excel as a classic quarterback.
The Ravens would be crazy to ride their key players in Week 17 against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The best teams in the NFL fight all season to earn a bye in the first round of the playoffs. The Ravens have played well enough to wrap up what amounts to a double bye.
Not only will they watch the wild-card round from the comfort of their couches, they have little incentive to risk anything in their regular-season finale against the Steelers. Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin will whip his team into a desperate frenzy with a No. 6 playoff seed on the line. And the Steelers play fast, violent defense even in a normal week. Remember, they sacked Jackson five times and intercepted him thrice in a narrow loss to the Ravens on Oct. 6.
Why would Ravens coach John Harbaugh even think about throwing his most precious players into such a maelstrom?
The Ravens were reminded of the potential risks in the fourth quarter of the Browns game as Ingram limped off with a calf injury and Jackson and Andrews both rose uncomfortably from late-game hits.
Jackson said he wants to play against the Steelers, and Harbaugh hates to lose any game (as we’ve seen in the preseason). But the Ravens coach rested some of his best players in a similar scenario at the end of the 2012 season. So don’t expect Harbaugh to be swayed by any arguments about his team rusting over a three-week layoff. He’ll likely take full advantage of the precious gifts of rest and recovery bestowed by the Ravens’ superior play.
Jackson, Ingram, Yanda and others have earned the respite, and Harbaugh has earned enough leeway not to take pointless risks.
The Ravens showed they can contain a runner with elite outside speed.
Don “Wink” Martindale’s crew has played surprisingly mediocre run defense this season, allowing opponents to average 4.5 yards per carry and surrendering a few massive performances to backs that excel outside the tackles.
No one had hurt them worse than Browns running back Nick Chubb, who gained 165 yards on just 20 carries in Week 4. Harbaugh raved about Chubb’s rare blend of speed and power in the run-up to the rematch. And it was obvious from early in Sunday’s game how much emphasis the Ravens would place on swarming to the NFL’s leading rusher.
Their approach worked brilliantly as they held Chubb to 45 yards on 15 carries. Whenever he tried to get wide, he seemed to meet two or three black-helmeted defenders. No Raven finished with more than five tackles, but eight finished with at least three stops. Pro Bowl linebacker Matthew Judon went without a sack but played one of his steadiest games as an edge-setter. Linebacker Josh Bynes reminded us of the stability he brought to the middle when the Ravens signed him after the previous Browns debacle.
The Ravens used nine defenders who did not suit up in that Week 4 scorching. They’ve delivered flashier defensive performances, featuring more sacks and turnovers, during their 11-game winning streak. But their collective work against Chubb was quietly some of their best in this run.
The Ravens have set their bar for success as high as possible.
Baltimore football fans have lived the last three months on an unprecedented high, watching their team become the best in the NFL and their quarterback become the most celebrated young star in American sports.
Even during the Ravens’ previous two Super Bowl runs, with all-time greats such as Ray Lewis and Ed Reed giving the franchise a fearsome, confident face, we never saw anything quite like this.
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But with great performance comes even greater expectations. These Ravens are so good that if they’re not hoisting the Lombardi Trophy on Feb. 2 in Miami, they and their fans will leave the season feeling disappointed.
Harbaugh knows it and has alluded to it. So has Jackson. A season can only be so magical if you don’t pull off the final trick.
Do you remember the 2007 Patriots as the greatest team in NFL history? Or as a team that was upset by the New York Giants on the last night of the season?
Do you remember the 2001 Seattle Mariners as a 116-win juggernaut? Or as a team that didn’t even reach the World Series?
The Ravens already stand thigh deep in honors, with more to come when the NFL starts handing out its individual awards.
They’re a great team.
To a man, they’ll tell you they have much left to do.