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It’s not because those things are abjectly terrible. As the Ravens showed in handling one of the AFC’s best teams on the road Saturday night, they are anything but.
It’s because a postseason date with Baltimore is the gift no one wants to get. Because with an unconventional (by today’s pass-happy standards) offense and arguably the league’s best defense, the Ravens are a matchup nightmare for the contenders on the AFC side of the bracket.
Tasked with facing a Los Angeles Chargers team coming off its biggest victory of the season that had won 10 of its last 11 games, the Ravens rolled into the StubHub Center and made the Chargers play their game. Baltimore dictated the terms of this engagement from the first play of the game—a Philip Rivers pass that was intercepted by Ravens corner Brandon Carr.
Granted, the Baltimore offense, much as it has done since rookie Lamar Jackson took over at quarterback, didn’t light the world on fire. The Ravens scored just six points in the first half and had only one offensive touchdown and 15 first downs in 60 minutes.
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But at game’s end, the Ravens had a respectable 361 yards of total offense, and the NFL leaders in time of possession entering Week 16 controlled the ball for more than 31 minutes. They also gained 159 yards on the ground, averaged 4.5 yards a carry and out-rushed the Chargers (who got Melvin Gordon back for this game) by a margin of more than 3-to-1.
Of course, that’s also been something of a knock used against these Ravens in some circles. Baltimore runs so much because it has no choice—due to Jackson’s limitations as a passer.
While speaking to the NFL Network after the game, Jackson had a message for the naysayers.
“I’m going to take advantage of what the defense gives me,” Jackson said. “My job is to keep the ball rolling down the field and score points. If I don’t run around, that’s not going to happen. They say I run around, but if the defense comes up, I’ll throw the ball over their heads and score points. They’ll say whatever they’re going to say, and we’re just going to keep proving them wrong.”
Jackson was even kind enough to provide a visual aid early in the second half after the Chargers briefly took the lead.
Wasn’t that nice of him?
Do the Ravens have a balanced attack? Nope. Does Baltimore have a prolific passing game? Again, no. Is Jackson a finished product as a thrower? Not close. And is Jackson’s rate of carrying the ball on the ground (13 rushes Saturday) sustainable in the long term? Probably not.
Right now, though, the Ravens aren’t worried about the long term. And so long as Baltimore runs this offense, it’s going to give opposing defensive coordinators sleepless nights. Try to play Baltimore straight up, and Jackson will zone-read you into thinking you’re in the ACC. Overcommit to stopping said zone-read, and any lapse in coverage is a big play waiting to happen.
No, the Ravens aren’t the Kansas City Chiefs on offense. But they don’t have to be. Because unlike the Chiefs, the Ravens have a defense.
As a matter of fact, the Ravens have the defense.
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On Saturday night, Baltimore’s league-leading defense completely shut down one of the best offenses in football—on that offense’s home field. In addition to scoring just 10 points, the Chargers managed only 198 yards of total offense. Both were season lows for the Bolts.
Per the NFL Network, it marked the fifth time this season that the Ravens held an opponent to a season low in yardage. There are no weaknesses on this squad. The front seven harassed Rivers constantly (four sacks and eight QB hits) and held the Chargers to just 51 rushing yards. The secondary picked off Rivers’ first and last passes of the game and forced a fumble that was returned for a game-sealing touchdown.
SCOOP AND SCORE.
@NLtyoung returns the Gates fumble TO THE HOUSE! #RavensFlock
📺: #BALvsLAC on @nflnetwork https://t.co/6WNNcMa2fk
If Jackson and Baltimore’s unconventional offense keep opposing defensive coordinators up at night, then Don Martindale’s defense is the stuff of nightmares. It doesn’t just check all the boxes (run stuffing, pass rushing, coverage); it pounds those boxes into paste.
The two sides of the ball feed off one another, as well. The offense chews clock and gives the defense a chance to catch its breath. The defense then forces a turnover that gives the offense a short field.
Oh, and the Ravens have the best kicker in the NFL in Justin Tucker (who made a 56-yarder look routine Saturday and just missed from 65) and a dangerous return man in Chris Moore.
That’s a lethal combination in the playoffs. And make no mistake—this team is playoff-bound. If the Steelers lose in New Orleans on Sunday (not exactly a stretch), the Ravens will be a Week 17 win over the Cleveland Browns away from winning the AFC North and a likely Wild Card Round date with—wait for it—the Chargers.
Just the thought of facing Baltimore in the postseason again is enough to make Tom Brady choke on his kale smoothie.
Given their ability to run the ball (and dedication to doing so), the Ravens won’t be impeded as much as other playoff teams by the elements. Outside in the cold or under a roof makes little difference. Sure, if you can get a big lead, you can theoretically force Baltimore to do something it doesn’t want to (go pass-heavy), but against that defense, what are the odds that happens?
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That defense is going to show up, too…whether it’s at Arrowhead or Gillette or NRG Stadium. They don’t say “defense travels” because it sounds clever. It’s true.
Facing the Ravens means playing a ball-control team with a phenomenal defense and outstanding special teams. A team you’re probably going to have to beat on its terms. That isn’t easy, even for the best clubs in the NFL.
After Saturday’s season-saving, message-sending, tone-setting victory, veteran safety Eric Weddle was asked on the NFL Network postgame show if Baltimore’s formula for success could carry the team all the way to Atlanta.
“Why not?” Weddle asked. “We play great defense, we control the ball on offense and we play great special teams. In playoff football, that’s the ingredients to win.”
The man has a point.