Five thoughts on the Ravens' 34-17 win over the Oakland Raiders Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium:
Of the 16 games on the Ravens' schedule, none figured to be easier than this one. The Raiders came in as double-digit underdogs, with just two wins, tied for fewest in the league. But the game wasn't so easy. If the Ravens had been forced to kick a field goal at the end of a long drive early in the fourth quarter, the Raiders would have been down by just six points with possession of the ball – a precarious situation considering the playmaking ability their offense had shown. But on the game's decisive play, a third down, Lamar Jackson hit Michael Crabtree for a 7-yard touchdown, finishing off that long drive early in the fourth quarter. Ravens Head Coach John Harbaugh called it a "huge" play, and indeed, it meant the Ravens were up by 10 points instead of six. The remaining minutes were less nerve-wracking. The game was more of a grind than the easy stroll some anticipated, but bottom line, it was the must-win the Ravens needed on their way to tougher matchups in the coming weeks as they continue to compete for a wild-card ticket to the playoffs.
In the first half, it almost seemed as if the Ravens were trying to quell the debate about rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson's passing ability. Jackson ran just twice and passed (or tried to pass and was sacked) on 20 of Baltimore's 29 snaps in the first two quarters. Jackson said it wasn't intentional, that he was "just taking what the defense gave" him, but the results were underwhelming; he was intercepted twice and the Ravens never reached the end zone. I don't know who piped up in the halftime locker room; Harbaugh said the offensive linemen did, among others. Regardless, the Ravens adopted an entirely different strategy after halftime, cramming the ball down the throats of Oakland's defense, which is ranked No. 31 in the league against the run. "We felt like we needed to do it; felt like we could do it," Harbaugh said. The results were much better. The Ravens engineered a pair of long touchdown drives with Jackson and running back Gus Edwards doing most of the damage on the ground. Baltimore controlled the ball for 15 of the first 18 minutes after halftime, taking command of the game. Now we have a commandment to remember: Thou Shalt Not Forget to Run the Ball When Lamar is Under Center.
The Ravens have a long history of getting points from their defense and special teams, i.e., touchdowns on returns of turnovers and kicks. Call it the Ed Reed Factor. It has been a huge and consistent help over the years for a franchise that hasn't always registered the, um, gaudiest offensive numbers, but the well of game-changing plays had suddenly gone dry this season. Coming into Sunday, the offense had scored all 26 of the Ravens' touchdowns. That's tough on an offense, but the Ed Reed Factor finally kicked in Sunday as Cyrus Jones gave the Ravens the lead for good with a 70-yard punt return for a touchdown early in the second quarter, and Terrell Suggs sealed the win when he picked up a fumble and ran 43 yards for a touchdown in the fourth quarter. (Most amazing part of that? Suggs' hamstrings held up at age 36.) You could argue that the plays were the difference, as the game would have been more up for grabs without them. They certainly made life easier for the offense. Now the Ravens need to break another streak that continues to work against them: They haven't intercepted a pass since Week 5.
Although Jackson's passing numbers weren't great -- 14 of 25 for 178 yards, with one touchdowns and two interceptions – it's a mistake to deduce from them (as some surely will) that the Ravens learned that they can't rely on him to consistently pass for gains going forward. Huh? Jackson made a handful of nice plays with his arm. He hit wide-open Mark Andrews for a 74-yard gain, the Ravens' longest offensive play of the season. He hit John Brown with a perfect deep ball for a 43-yard gain that was called back because of a penalty. His interceptions? Both were tipped. Yes, he missed a couple of throws, but several on-target tosses were dropped. No doubt, the Ravens will rely less on a classic pro-style passing attack with Jackson, as his quick feet and running ability are what make him special. But the notion that he can't make plays with his arm is kind of silly. "He's a dual threat, can beat you with the run or pass," Raiders cornerback Gareon Conley said after facing him all day.
Short takes – It's worth noting that the Ravens started not one, not two, but three rookies on offense -- Jackson, Edwards and Orlando Brown Jr. … On Jones' punt return, Chris Moore and Matt Judon delivered key blocks as Jones raced 70 yards down the sideline without being touched … Judon's block was part of a big day for him, as he led the defense with three sacks … The Ravens' pass rush actually was pretty quiet for much of the day until it got hot late … There were strong endorsements for Jackson coming out of both locker rooms. Mark Andrews said he is "able to do things that make defenses stay up at night." Crabtree said, "Nobody had feet like that." Raiders safety Reggie Nelson said, "He did a great job."