It's going to be a happy bye week for Baltimore.
Winning for the sixth time in their last seven games, the Ravens (9-3) defeated the Chargers, 20-10, on "Sunday Night Football" and have the best record in the AFC with five games to play.
The Ravens have a bye in Week 13 and have earned the week off to reload for the home stretch, starting with their next game against the Rams on Dec. 10 at M&T Bank Stadium.
Here are my thoughts on a Ravens team that keeps finding ways to win:
The Ravens Deserve to Be the AFC's Top Dog
Baltimore entered Sunday night's game knowing the Chiefs (8-3), Dolphins (8-3), Jaguars (8-3), and Steelers (7-4) had all won in Week 12. That kept the pressure on the Ravens, and they responded with a resourceful victory riding the strength of a big-play defense.
The Chargers (4-7) may have 99 problems, but scoring points wasn't one of them – until this game. Los Angeles had never been held to fewer than 17 points all season, but the Ravens kept talented quarterback Justin Herbert off balance by mixing coverages and pressuring him consistently. The hard-hitting Baltimore defense forced three fumbles.
It wasn't the Ravens' most impressive victory, but it was definitely important. Baltimore's remaining schedule is one of the toughest in the NFL, including games against the Jaguars, 49ers (8-3), Dolphins and Steelers. It's going to be no cakewalk to the playoffs for the Ravens. In fact, a playoff spot still isn't even guaranteed.
However, a first-round bye and an AFC North championship are all distinct possibilities for the Ravens, and that's a great place to be heading into December.
"Getting to the Super Bowl is the goal," Lamar Jackson said. "We're going to take it a week at a time."
Yes, Baltimore's Defense Can Close Out Games
In all three of their losses this season, the Ravens lost a lead they sustained entering the fourth quarter and Herbert is a dangerous quarterback. When he connected with tight end Gerald Everett for a 3-yard touchdown pass to pull the Chargers to within 13-10 with 8:32 left, this had the feel of another game that could get away from Baltimore, especially after Justin Tucker missed a field goal that kept the Chargers just three points behind with 2:57 left to play.
However, Baltimore's defense forced the Chargers into four turnovers and stepped up big to stop the Chargers after Tucker's miss. On third-and-6, Patrick Queen broke up Herbert's pass intended for Austin Ekeler. Then on fourth down, Defensive Coordinator Mike Macdonald called a corner blitz that sent Arthur Maulet into the backfield untouched. Herbert was forced to throw the ball away, giving it back to Baltimore.
"You can't call a better game than he did tonight," Head Coach John Harbaugh said of Macdonald.
That set the stage for Zay Flowers to ice the game by scoring on a 37-yard reverse on the next series.
The Ravens simply refused to let this game slip away.
"I think Roquan (Smith) said it - if they don't score, they don't win," safety Kyle Hamilton said. "In the fourth quarter, it's up to us to get stops and we did."
Imagine what the Ravens could be capable of after their bye if they do a better job protecting fourth-quarter leads.
Baltimore's Offense Will Keep Adjusting During the Bye
Flowers' clinching touchdown run was spectacular, but Baltimore's coaching staff will surely use the bye week to self-scout and make offensive adjustments.
This was Baltimore's first game since Pro Bowl tight end Mark Andrews' ankle surgery, and adjusting without a player who has been so crucial to their offensive success is going to be a challenge. Second-year tight end Isaiah Likely was the Ravens' leading receiver with four catches for 40 yards, but Jackson's other targets such as wide receivers Odell Beckham Jr. (three catches, 34 yards), Flowers (five catches, 25 yards) and Rashod Bateman (two catches, 21 yards) were largely contained in the passing game.
"We're going to miss Mark regardless," Jackson said. "But I believe we can get it done still."
Baltimore's Defense Is Littered With Playmakers
If it wasn't Queen or Smith blowing up a play, it was Jadeveon Clowney or one of the Ravens' other pass rushers breathing down Herbert's neck.
That's the way it's been for Baltimore's defense all season, a host of players performing at a high level. In the fourth quarter, Clowney made a huge strip sack against Herbert and recovered the fumble to drive.
Testing the middle of Baltimore's defense means dealing with the linebacker law firm of Smith and Queen. Smith forced a Keenan Allen fumble in the second quarter that set up a field goal by Tucker, Queen forced an Ekeler fumble on the Chargers' next possession.
Even without Pro Bowl cornerback Marlon Humphrey (calf), who missed his second straight game, Baltimore's coverage and tackling was superb. It's hard to say enough about cornerback Brandon Stephens, who has started every game and taken on some of the league's top receivers with no fear. Hamilton had another strong game, too.
The Ravens' defensive talent is deep and gives them a chance to win anywhere.
Jackson Doesn't Have to Be Dominant for Baltimore to Win
On a night when Jackson didn't throw for 200 yards (18 for 32, 177 yards) and rushed for just 39 yards, the Ravens found a way to win. That's a good sign for the Ravens moving forward.
Jackson didn't take over the game, but the Ravens got some key running contributions from Keaton Mitchell (nine carries, 64 yards) and Justice Hill (five carries, 31 yards) while the defense kept making key plays.
The Ravens have an extremely deep roster and many players who are contributing from week to week. Every week, opponents must game plan to contain Jackson, but the Ravens are a resourceful group that is winning in different ways.
- Harbaugh said Justin Madubuike, who left the game late, would enter the concussion protocol.
- With half a sack, Madubuike has 10 sacks for the season and becomes the first Raven to reach double-digit sacks since Terrell Suggs in 2017.
- Defensive lineman Broderick Washington, who was inactive against the Bengals in Week 11, had a key sack late in the game to help seal the win.
- Jackson reached over 5,000 yards rushing in his career, reaching that milestone faster than any other quarterback in NFL history.
- Clowney has 7.5 sacks and is closing in on his career high of 9.5.