Battle-Tested Ravens React to Clinching Playoff Spot

The Baltimore Ravens defense celebrates with cornerback Marcus Peters (24) after he intercepted a pass in the end zone intended for Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green during during the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Jan. 3, 2021, in Cincinnati. (AP Photo/Aaron Doster)

One month and one day ago, the Ravens were dealing with a COVID-19 outbreak and had lost their third straight game, this time to the rival Steelers. That's when Baltimore went into "playoff mode," likely needing to win out to reach the playoffs.

On Sunday in Cincinnati, the Ravens officially punched their ticket, dominating the Bengals in a 38-3 victory for their fifth-straight win.

The Ravens are going to the playoffs for the third straight year and enter as one of the NFL's hottest teams.

In the postgame locker room, players said there was of, course, celebration. But the Ravens have been in must-win games for a month, and they know they have to do more this year in the playoffs.

"We had our backs to the wall," Head Coach John Harbaugh said. "Nobody said anything, they just went to work every single day and competed in every single game. Now we start again. It's a new season."

The Bengals entered Sunday's game with 12 straight victories in their home finale when entering with a losing record. Memories of their shocking upset that kept Baltimore out of the playoffs in 2017 were rekindled this week.

But this time, the Ravens left no doubt – jumping out to an early lead and never letting up. It was complete domination.

Their offense continued to run over its foe with a franchise record 404 yards on the ground. They threatened the NFL's all-time record for most rushing yards in a single game since 1950 (423 by the New York Giants).

The Ravens pounded away, making a point as they enter the playoffs that it's going to be difficult for anyone to slow both their ground game and quarterback Lamar Jackson, who is back to playing at an MVP level.

Jackson posted 97 rushing yards, becoming the first quarterback in NFL history with multiple 1,000 -yard rushing seasons, and threw three touchdowns.

"Our team – we knew what was at stake for us. There was a lot of focus going, all phases just played their butts off," Jackson said. "We've still got room for improvement."

The Ravens know they've fallen short the past two years with one-and-done performances in the playoffs. Last year's divisional round loss to the Tennessee Titans – their possible first-round opponent – was one of the most deflating losses in franchise history.

While there are similarities to last year's squad, the march to the postseason has been much different. The Ravens were 14-2 last year. They cruised into the playoffs resting their starters and with only a couple close games over the final two months. They enjoyed a first-round bye that left questions about rust being a factor.

This year, the Ravens had so much more adversity to overcome. Jackson didn't look like his MVP self until he came back from COVID-19. Baltimore suffered brutal season-ending injuries to its franchise left tackle, Ronnie Stanley, and a key offensive cog, Nick Boyle. There were numerous other injuries that knocked players out for multiple games and left the defensive line, then the secondary, short-handed.

But as Harbaugh said, the team relied on "faith and guts," a slogan printed on T-shirts over the final stretch that has defined this 2020 team.

"People doubted us a lot throughout the season, because we weren't having the year that we had last year," Jackson said. "Our team fought through that, and we showed the world we're here to play, and we've just got to keep it going."

Safety Chuck Clark said the Ravens are stronger this year than last because of what they've gone through this season. Outside linebacker Matthew Judon said he didn't even want to talk about last season.

The Ravens aren't riding too high even though they're playing their best football of the season entering the playoffs. Asked how special it is to make the playoffs after everything the Ravens have gone through this season, Jackson flatly said, "it's pretty cool."

"But we've still got things we want to finish," he said. "It's just the beginning for us, to be honest with you."

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