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Five Things We Learned from the Ravens’ 28-10 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers

From the Ravens’ passionate performance in a game they did not need to the joy displayed by backup quarterback Robert Griffin III, here are five things we learned from a 28-10 regular-season-closing victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Even in a supposed afterthought game, the Ravens showed why they’re great.

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No one outside the Ravens’ locker room would have cared a bit if the team had come out flat and lost to the Steelers in Sunday’s regular-season finale.

The Ravens had already put a series of exclamation points on the greatest regular season in team history. They could not improve their playoff standing and rested some of their most important players in anticipation of the defining games ahead. Compared with the Steelers, still fighting for their playoff lives, they had little incentive to play spirited football.

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Yet the Ravens knew they would do just that. On a soggy, gray afternoon four days after Christmas, they battered their eternal rival in a game they did not need but wanted badly.

The ensuing victory was perhaps the least important and least aesthetically pleasing in a 14-2 season defined by the brilliance of quarterback Lamar Jackson. But the Ravens still managed to say something about why they’re a great team.

Every player wants to win every moment of every game. Why else were veterans such as Brandon Carr and Matthew Judon chasing Steelers quarterback Devlin “Duck” Hodges through the mud in the waning moments? Why else was cornerback Marcus Peters on the field for almost every snap the day after he signed a reported $42-million contract extension? Why else did the Ravens execute a fake punt on their own 11-yard-line in the fourth quarter?

With the regular season at end, Ravens coach John Harbaugh recalled the internal reckoning his team faced after falling to 2-2 with a Sept. 29 loss to the Cleveland Browns.

“Boy, did we ever find out what we’re made of,” Harbaugh said proudly.

Asked if he was surprised that his team played with such passion in a “meaningless” game, he shook his head. “They definitely showed us something yet again today,” he said of his players. “But I also knew they would.”

The Ravens deserve to go down as the all-time single-season rushing leader.

It’s difficult to get NFL players or coaches to acknowledge any interest in records.

The Ravens, however, expressed genuine enthusiasm for breaking the 41-year-old team rushing record set by the 1978 New England Patriots.

Perhaps the mark held allure because it would be a genuine group accomplishment, as attributable to a durable offensive line and battering-ram fullback Patrick Ricard as to Jackson’s sublime scrambling. Perhaps the Ravens recognized that it would properly memorialize their commitment to ground warfare in an era when most teams are looking to the air.

Whatever the reason, Ricard described the record as “a big deal.” Offensive coordinator Greg Roman said it would be “quite an accomplishment for our guys.”

It was fair to ask if the Ravens would gain the requisite 93 yards, given the absence of their two leading rushers, Jackson and Mark Ingram II. But Roman’s schemes worked for two previous NFL franchises, and they worked Sunday with Robert Griffin III piloting the show and Gus Edwards taking the most handoffs. Sure enough, Edwards blasted off tackle for the record-setting yards in the second quarter.

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The Ravens had already become just the third team in NFL history and the first since those 1978 Patriots to rush for at least 3,000 yards. They had established themselves as a historic anomaly, a callback to an age when NFL games were won 5 grinding yards at a time. They entered Week 17 with almost 900 more yards than the No. 2 rushing team in the league.

Then they added to their legacy with 223 yards against a defense that came in limiting opponents to 3.7 per carry. The Steelers knew what was coming, and it did not matter.

Given trends in the modern game, the mark the Ravens set Sunday could stand far longer than 41 years.

“That’s the record that would never be broken, and it just got broken by the 2019 Baltimore Ravens,” said Harbaugh, a longstanding fan of ground-based offense. “It feels real good.”

If Mark Ingram II’s calf injury lingers, Gus Edwards is a perfectly capable No. 1 option.

Ingram said he expects to be ready for the start of the playoffs in two weeks, and that would certainly be the best scenario for the Ravens. No one on the roster can match his blend of tough running, effective blocking and adept pass catching.

But Edwards reminded us of his brutal effectiveness as a sledgehammer pounding at the heart of a defense, gaining 130 yards on 21 carries as the Ravens’ No. 1 option against an outstanding Steelers front seven.

He was a breakout rookie last season, averaging 5.2 yards per carry as he supplanted Alex Collins and led the team in rushing. Edwards is so quiet that you’d never know if his feelings were hurt when he had to accept a reserve role behind Ingram. He maintained his 5.2 yards-per-carry average as a third option in the Ravens’ record-setting attack. He showed subtle growth, bouncing to the outside on select plays. According to Pro Football Focus, he graded as a more effective pure runner than Ingram through 16 weeks.

So we should not have been surprised by his production against Pittsburgh, marred only by a lost fumble in the third quarter.

“Gus, to me, is a starting running back in this league,” Harbaugh said. “He continues to prove it.”

Calf injuries sometimes heal slowly, and there’s no guarantee Ingram will be 100% recovered for the AFC divisional round. If that’s the case, the Ravens will turn to Edwards with well-earned confidence.

Robert Griffin III can’t be Lamar Jackson, but his joy helped animate Sunday’s game.

Griffin took issue with those who described the game as meaningless.

“There was pressure for a lot of guys out there who haven’t played,” he said. “I haven’t started a game in three years.”

The former NFL Rookie of the Year squeezed every bit of emotion he could find out of the occasion, gesturing like a newly announced Grammy winner when the Ravens earned first downs and barking at the officials about Pittsburgh’s extracurricular hits.

“I’m not really a first-down signal guy,” he said, laughing. “But I was today.”

Griffin had insisted all week that the focus should be on team and not about his resurrection from NFL obsolescence. But it was easy to see how much the victory meant to him.

Griffin cannot imitate Jackson, because no one can. He did not throw as sharply as he would have liked in the steady rain (11 of 21 for just 96 yards), and he struggled to finish drives with touchdowns. But he did keep the offense moving against one of the NFL’s finest defensive fronts, despite playing without Ingram and Pro Bowl linemen Ronnie Stanley and Marshal Yanda. He did relish the opportunity in a way he probably would not have when he was 22 years and the prince of Washington.

As the Ravens took firm control of the game in the fourth quarter, a chant rose from every corner of the stadium: “RGIII, RGIII, RGIII.”

The Kansas City Chiefs vaulting to the No. 2 seed was no great thing for the Ravens.

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A cheer went up as Ravens fans watched the Miami Dolphins finish off their upset of the New England Patriots on the large video boards at M&T Bank Stadium. This was understandable given how long Tom Brady and Bill Belichick have served as the AFC’s resident Death Star operators.

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But the unexpected result dropped New England to the No. 3 seed in the AFC, meaning the Chiefs will have a first-round bye and host the Patriots if the teams meet in the divisional round. Those are two big legs up for the team that has surpassed the Patriots as the greatest threat to the Ravens’ Super Bowl ambitions.

The Ravens smoked the Patriots in Baltimore earlier this season, while they’ve lost road games to the Chiefs each of the past two years. But that’s the tip of the iceberg in explaining why the Ravens might wish for a rematch with the Patriots in the AFC championship game.

The defending Super Bowl champions still play excellent pass defense and generally avoid beating themselves with needless mistakes. But the Patriots have become remarkably limited on offense, with Brady rarely looking more than 15 yards downfield and no dynamic running back to make up for this conservatism. For all their guile, they would struggle to keep up with the Ravens’ league-best offense.

The same cannot be said for the Chiefs, who have the NFL’s most dynamic big-play passer in Patrick Mahomes and a cadre of terrifying weapons led by wide receiver Tyreek Hill and tight end Travis Kelce. The Ravens have learned all too well the difficulties of containing said players down the stretch of big games. But the Chiefs have also improved on defense, limiting opponents to 11.5 points per game over their last six.

According to the DVOA statistic developed by FootballOutsiders.com, Kansas City ranked top 10 in offensive, defensive and special teams efficiency going into their season finale.

The Ravens have no reason to fear any team given what they’ve accomplished this season, and a Jackson-Mahomes rematch would tantalize football fans everywhere. But the Chiefs, already the greatest obstacle on the Ravens’ road to Super Bowl LIV, made themselves more dangerous by leapfrogging the Patriots.

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