Five thoughts on the Ravens' 24-17 win over the Buffalo Bills Sunday at New Era Field:
The Ravens ran into quite a situation here. Off to their best start since 1996, the Bills were inspired, anxious to prove they're bona fide championship contenders. They did a better job of limiting Lamar Jackson on the ground than any opponent the Ravens have faced. Western New York, the whole region, was juiced. The stadium was rocking. The wind was swirling. Points were hard to come by. Winners of eight straight games coming in, the Ravens had targets on their backs and needed to find a new way to win. They did, and that's what championship teams do – problem-solve in tough conditions. The Ravens' blueprint for victory consisted of their swarming, punishing defense leading the way and their offense enduring some struggles but putting up enough points to win. No style points? That couldn't matter less. This was a December contest between playoff teams. That's the major leagues. That the Ravens were resourceful, found a way to win, is a major statement.
The Ravens' defense has experienced a lot more ups than downs as this season has unfolded, but even on good days it has been, let's face it, part of Jackson's supporting cast. The offense has been the story. Not on this day, though. The offense was just OK, which meant the defense needed to lead, as it has for so many seasons, and oh, did it. Bills quarterback Josh Allen will spend some time in the hot tub. The game plan concocted by Ravens Defensive Coordinator Wink Martindale was simple and brutal – attack, attack, attack. Almost every time he dropped back, Allen was chased and harassed. The Ravens came in with modest pass-rush stats but registered six sacks and 12 quarterback hits. Matthew Judon set up a touchdown with a strip-sack. Buffalo's offensive line was overwhelmed. Allen and his offense still made some plays, left a few on the table and rallied late. But Buffalo didn't sniff the end zone until midway through the fourth quarter, and it's hard to complete a rally when your quarterback is running for his life.
The Ravens' 257 yards of offense was their low for the season, and they converted just three of 11 third downs into firsts, which meant they kept giving up possession. What did the Bills do right? Well, it helped that the wind was swirling, and that Jackson's favorite target, Mark Andrews, suffered a knee injury in the first quarter and didn't return. But give the Bills credit. Their front seven was feisty. They did a solid job against the run and brought waves of pressure to keep Jackson from getting loose. For the first time in 2019, he simply had little room to run. Offensive Coordinator Greg Roman tried all sorts of fancy stuff to shake things up, screen passes, a jet sweep, the Wildcat, the Heisman package. Some worked better than others. But give Jackson credit. He didn't get frustrated and make mistakes. To the contrary, he looked like a seasoned pro, not a typical 22-year-old, as he waited for opportunities to arise and took advantage. It was his toughest day, but he still threw three touchdown passes, including one to Nick Boyle that was improvised and magical.
The Ravens' prospects looked especially shaky early in the third quarter. They were only up by four points. The Bills actually seemed to be moving the ball better. The Ravens needed someone to make a play. Jackson spotted tight end Hayden Hurst wide open on a deep route. The throw hit Hurst in stride and he galloped untouched to the end zone to complete a 61-yard scoring play that changed the game, forcing the Bills to have to play from significantly behind. Watching Hurst sprint to the end zone on the most important play of his career, I thought about how different players develop at different speeds. While Andrews, who plays the same position and is from the same draft class, has been a difference-maker from the outset, Hurst had dealt with injuries and a less tangible connection with Jackson. But he has never said a word and is maturing into a weapon. His hands and speed were readily apparent on the touchdown, and he now has 23 catches on 29 targets in 2019, so he is grabbing almost everything thrown his way. Andrews will be missed if his knee injury sidelines him. But Hurst, developing into the player the Ravens envisioned, is ready to step in.
Short takes: The Ravens have been a virtual lock to make the playoffs for weeks, but they're in for sure with this win, and my two cents, that should never be taken for granted … Par for the course, there were a handful of calls and non-calls, both ways, that might not hold up when the league office reviews the game. I wasn't sure about any of the roughing calls against the Ravens, especially the one on Earl Thomas III in the first half. I'm just glad the Bills' last-ditch drive wound up not mattering because it was comprised almost entirely of penalty yardage, which I hate seeing … The Bills were charitable. Allen overthrew several open receivers, especially early. Tight end Dawson Knox dropped an on-target throw that would have extended a dangerous-looking drive in the third quarter. Drops by Devin Singletary and Cole Beasley ended another drive in the third quarter … Baltimore's wide receivers actually had more receptions (7) than the tight ends (6), but those seven catches were good for just 19 yards. Tough going … All sorts of numbers reflect how good the Ravens are in 2019, but their 6-1 road record might be the best of all.