Five thoughts on the Ravens' 26-24 win over the Cleveland Browns Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium:
I'll get to the game in a minute – that game, those final minutes, goodness gracious. But let's consider the big picture first. Let's go over the story. What a tale it is – the one about the Ravens' first division title since 2012, which no one saw coming and wasn't nailed down until the final seconds Sunday. "If you wanted to write a book about this season, probably no one would believe it," Ravens Head Coach John Harbaugh said. Indeed, the playoffs seemed an impossible dream less than two months ago, when Baltimore had a 4-5 record and an injured quarterback. But they found a winning formula with a new quarterback, a new offensive philosophy and a rugged defense, and they started gaining ground. Eventually, they passed the Pittsburgh Steelers. Then they held on for dear life Sunday. Barely held on. If your heart wasn't fluttering toward the end, you might not be alive. "I know I was worthless in the fourth quarter," Harbaugh joked. But they made the plays. They held on. So now the story goes into the history books, and mark my words, it's going to be a popular one. Years from now, fans will still talk fondly about what happened in 2018, when the Ravens came from a mile back to win a division title with a rookie quarterback making plays. True football stories don't get much better, folks. You just lived through a great season, one of the franchise's best. And it's not over.
This wasn't an ideal day to come into Baltimore and try to prove something. With so much on the line for the Ravens, the stands were crowded, the fans were noisy and the Ravens were revved up to drive a stake through the "can't finish" ghosts that have haunted them. They took command early with their running game, went up big, seemingly almost delivered a knockout blow before halftime. But the Browns aren't the Browns anymore. When the Ravens faltered, the Browns came roaring back with their playmakers and athleticism and their rookie quarterback, Baker Mayfield, who, honestly, made enough big plays to win the game, torching the Ravens' top-ranked defense for 376 passing yards and three touchdowns. "This league will humble you," said Ravens linebacker C.J. Mosley, who saved the day with an interception that halted a drive with the Browns right on the outskirts of game-winning field goal range. You might never hear a city emit a louder roar, partly out of joy, more from relief.
Coming in, it was believed the Ravens' defense gave them the edge in a close matchup. But the defense had its hands full, especially once Mayfield started flinging deep completions. In the end, it was the Ravens' offense that carried them. The unit has never been more impressive than it was in the first 28 minutes Sunday. Lamar Jackson was almost impossible to corral. Gus Edwards and especially Kenneth Dixon were roaring through holes and bowling over defenders. Every time the offense had possession, it held the ball for long stretches and generated points. Baltimore had a 20-7 lead and it was almost 27-7 late in the second quarter until a Jackson touchdown was nullified and ruled a fumble, with the Browns gaining possession. The Ravens never scored another touchdown, mostly due to penalties curtailing drives. "We slowed ourselves down, is what happened," Jackson said. But the offense, which finished with a season-high 296 rushing yards, still drove the ball on most of its possessions and generated just enough points, i.e., Justin Tucker field goals (four in all), to make the difference. The offense finished with a healthy 17-minute edge in possession time, which kept Mayfield off the field.
After the game, both teams expressed their displeasure with the officiating. And their gripes were legitimate, I thought. The Browns were upset that Jackson's fumble on the goal-line was initially ruled a touchdown and blown dead, denying the Browns a chance to pick up the loose ball and run for a touchdown. "That's a big a moment in the game, in my opinion, a six-point swing right there," the Browns' Jabrill Peppers said. My two cents, the quick whistle saved the Ravens from what could easily have been a disastrous play. But the Ravens were upset about a phantom holding call on Maxx Williams that nullified what would have been a huge touchdown run by Jackson in the third quarter. "I'm not supposed to say anything about the refs but … that was a good block by Maxx," Jackson said. Another promising Baltimore drive was scuttled by an offensive interference call on Michael Crabtree, who had minimal contact with a defender. Strange calls, all. But that's the case every week now, it seems. At least the calls evened out.
Short takes: I admit, I had my doubts about the "light bulb coming on for Breshad Perriman" angle, seeing as he only had 13 receptions for the season entering the game. But a touchdown pass was among his season-high three receptions in what was undeniably a triumphant return. He may have found a home … How hot did the Ravens start? Their 121 rushing yards in the first quarter was their most on the ground in a quarter since 2008 …. The result gave the Ravens exactly 200 wins in 23 seasons … In your weekly reminder of how valuable Tucker is, keep in mind that the Browns' Greg Joseph missed a 46-yard attempt just before halftime. That could have changed things in the end, needless to say. Tucker hit from 38, 44, 35 and 23 yards without a miss.
Check out the best photos from Sunday's Week 17 game against the Cleveland Browns.