"Congratulations to the Ravens, to the players, to the coaches, to the fans," said Harbaugh. "The Ravens AFC North champs."
From the Ravens exceeding expectations to a turnover-dependent defense to Mark Ingram II’s brilliance, here are five things we learned from a blowout victory Thursday night over the New York Jets.
The Ravens have spoiled us.
Just think about the surface details of the Ravens’ Thursday night. They won by three touchdowns. They clinched the AFC North with two weeks to spare. They moved within one victory of clinching home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs. Their Most Valuable Player-candidate quarterback threw five touchdown passes on the same night he broke Michael Vick’s single-season rushing record for the position.
If we’d stipulated those facts three months ago, any Ravens fan would have been over-the-moon ecstatic, no?
Yet this momentous victory against the overmatched Jets felt a bit ho-hum, a touch sloppy.
The Ravens stumbled through one of the worst special-teams games of coach John Harbaugh’s 12-year tenure. They allowed the 30th-ranked passing offense in the NFL to connect on three plays of 30 yards or more. They were actually outgained in the first half. Even Jackson left his record-setting night lamenting a pass he zipped well behind fullback Patrick Ricard and a potential touchdown he sailed over tight end Mark Andrews’ head.
“We kind of played down to our competition,” safety Earl Thomas III said, indicating that the Ravens are also judging themselves by an Olympian standard.
Is it petty to sweat such details when so much went right?
Sure it is. Think back to September, when many analysts predicted the Ravens would miss the playoffs, and skeptical fans fretted over Jackson’s durability and/or throwing mechanics. That same team is now a strong favorite to win the Super Bowl, according to almost every statistical model. That same player has 1,103 rushing yards to go with a 33-to-6 touchdown-to-interception ratio. The Ravens have so far exceeded expectations that they’ve broken our compass.
And yet it isn’t petty, because the Ravens won’t be playing the Jets on the second weekend of January. Whether they’re facing the Tennessee Titans or the Pittsburgh Steelers or the Buffalo Bills, their playoff opponent will be good enough to punish sloppy punt blocking or lax zone coverage. An errant detail could bring an abrupt ending to one of the most remarkable seasons in franchise history.
The Ravens have convinced us and themselves they should make it all the way to Miami on Feb. 2. In that light, it made perfect sense to nitpick a 42-21 blowout.
Jackson’s postgame T-shirt said it all: “The North is Not Enough.”
Turnovers have become the Ravens’ salvation on defense.
The Ravens played better overall defense in 2018 than they have this year. They rushed the passer more effectively and stuffed the run more consistently.
What they did not do was create more turnovers than their offense surrendered.
That has changed in 2019. The Ravens came into Thursday sixth in the NFL in turnover differential at plus-8 and added two to that total.
We saw the importance of this style in the first half when the Jets actually outgained the Ravens but came away with just seven points, in part because of a Chuck Clark interception at the Baltimore 5-yard-line.
The Ravens defense produced at least two turnovers for the eighth time this season. They’ve won those games by a combined 213 points.
“The turnover differential is the No. 1 stat that affects winning and losing,” Harbaugh said. “We had a goal for a really high number this year. We aren’t really where we wanted to be, but we’re pretty darn good.”
There’s some danger in becoming a turnover-dependent defense, because fumble-recovery rates are volatile. But the Ravens have defensive backs who take risks to produce big plays, and they do a good job going for strips when they get to opposing quarterbacks. The approach has worked for them, even on relative off days for their defense.
Mark Ingram II has produced one of the best seasons by a running back in team history.
Ingram has been overshadowed by Jackson, but he’s the perfect running back for this team — terrific between the tackles and near the goal line, consistently effective as a receiver and underappreciated as a pass blocker.
Rarely do you watch him run the ball and feel he’s left anything on the table. That was certainly the case against the Jets’ normally stellar run defense. Ingram ran through the first hit almost every time he touched the ball on the way to 76 yards on 13 carries and his fourth touchdown catch of the season.
“There are times when I think Mark Ingram is stopped, and then, all of a sudden, he gets 5 more yards or more,” Harbaugh said. “He always makes the most out of every single run.”
Ingram came into the game 12th in the league in rushing and second on his own team. But advanced analytics suggest he’s been more effective than higher-volume runners such as Dalvin Cook and Derrick Henry. According to FootballOutsiders.com’s DYAR stat, which adjusts for the game situation and opponent on every carry, Ingram was the second best running back in the league through 13 games, behind only MVP candidate Christian McCaffrey.
It’s a testament to how much he makes of each play with his violent running style. Ravens backs have delivered several truly great seasons over the years, from Jamal Lewis’ 2,066-yard masterpiece in 2003 to Ray Rice’s 15-touchdown peak in 2011. Ingram’s all-around effort in 2019 belongs in that pantheon.
The Ravens’ performance on kickoffs has quietly become a problem.
The Ravens played a disastrous overall game on special teams. They allowed a blocked punt for a touchdown in the fourth quarter. Justin Tucker missed an extra-point attempt. Morgan Cox was a subject of postgame commentary, never a good sign for the long snapper. But it’s hard to say those miscues were indicative of broader problems.
Kickoffs, on the other hand, have bedeviled this team week after week.
There aren’t many weaknesses in the Ravens’ statistical profile, but they came into Thursday’s game averaging just 17.9 yards on kickoff returns and allowing 22.1 yards on opponents’ returns. Those numbers got worse against the Jets as they allowed 179 yards on seven kickoff returns while gaining just five on one return of their own.
“They were basically blocking us,” Harbaugh said. “They blocked our guys on the kickoff return. … They played really well, but we didn’t.”
The Ravens missed Chris Board, who came in second on the team in special-teams snaps but was sidelined by a concussion. They also haven’t fully recovered from releasing Justin Bethel, a Pro Bowl candidate on special teams, after Week 7. The Ravens felt they had to let him go to protect a pick in next year’s draft, but Bethel had a remarkable instinct for zeroing in on opposing returners.
Meanwhile, the Ravens have generated almost nothing on their own kickoff returns. De’Anthony Thomas has averaged 12.2 yards on six returns since taking over the job in Week 10, with the team often preferring to accept touchbacks.
Marquise Brown was involved in the offense again, and that’s an important indicator of future success.
Brown’s statistical line from the previous two weeks defied belief: four catches for minus-1 yard. The Ravens only got him the ball on short passes to the flats, and the diminutive rookie could not push through the walls of defensive beef that confronted him on each occasion.
Against the Jets, however, Brown was back to the form that made him one of the best first-year receivers in the league through 12 weeks. He caught all four passes thrown his way, absorbing a nasty pop on one play over the middle and neatly dragging his toes on a slightly overthrown touchdown pass by Jackson. He also drew an interference call in the end zone that set the Ravens up for an easy score from the one-yard-line.
Though he’s dealt with bothersome injuries, Brown remains the chief over-the-top threat in an oft-underused wide receiver corps. When he’s clicking along with the team’s tight ends (Andrews appeared healthy after missing most of the previous game with a knee injury), the Ravens don’t have to grind out every possession. Against the Jets, only one of their six touchdown drives lasted more than five minutes.
They’re likely to need such quick strikes during the playoffs, which makes Brown one of their most important offensive players going forward.