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Eisenberg: Christmas Gifts Instead of Coal. Savor It, Ravens Fans


Let's face it, there have been several years lately when Ravens fans hoped for holiday gifts but instead received a lump of coal.

Antonio Brown stretches the ball across the goal line and knocks the Ravens out of the playoffs – on Christmas night, no less. The defense needs to bat down a pass on fourth-and-12 to punch a ticket into January, but everyone gets Grinched.

Bah, humbug, indeed. But those tough memories make it easier to savor this year's bountiful holiday haul.

"When you've had a gut-wrenching experience like we've had the past two years, you take those with you and it makes you stronger," Ravens Head Coach John Harbaugh said Monday.

Stronger and happier if and when things start to balance out. And no doubt, Ravens fans suddenly are enjoying enough gifts in 2018 that available real estate under the tree might be at a premium.

Admittedly, possible spoilers lurk. The Ravens still need to win their regular season finale against the Cleveland Browns Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium to secure their first playoff berth since 2014. (And their first AFC North title since 2012. Talk about value-added.) And the emerging Browns would love nothing more than to scrawl a big X through Baltimore's Festivus blueprint.

Nonetheless, the Ravens' uplifting late-season surge has amounted to a white-bearded, big-bellied guy shimmying down the chimney and delivering gifts. Here are some of the items Ravens fans are savoring this year:

+ A classic defense.

The Ravens have never lacked for top 10 defenses, even lately (this will be their fourth in the past five years), but their 2018 unit is a cut above its recent predecessors. Aggressive, physical and relentless, it has emerged as truly dominant, capable of carrying the team far. The players get credit, but so does Defensive Coordinator Don "Wink" Martindale for seizing on what it took to go from good to great.

+ A true playmaker (and he's a quarterback).

The Ravens' recent non-playoff teams tended to lack offensive explosiveness, but that chronic shortfall instantly evaporated when Lamar Jackson became the starting quarterback in Week 10. Yes, he's a rookie, so there are growing pains and he is hardly a finished product, but now the Ravens have the fastest, most elusive guy on the field and he has the ball in his hands on every Baltimore snap, exponentially multiplying his opportunities to impact the game. The "same, old offense" lament is in the dustbin.

+ The right bounces.

The shot at a division title opened up when the Pittsburgh Steelers lost at New Orleans Sunday, but they were on the verge of sending the game into overtime, or winning it, when a fumble abruptly ended that clutch, Big Ben-led Steeler drive you've seen a thousand times. Along those lines, the Los Angeles Chargers were driving toward a possible go-ahead touchdown late Saturday night when Patrick Onwuasor punched a fumble loose and the Ravens' defense delivered a knockout blow. To be clear, that's all skill, not luck; a team usually gets what it does or doesn't deserve. But oh, what nice timing for a change.

+ A low-wattage transition.

Believe me, little can roil locker room chemistry more than a popular veteran star bristling at a diminished role. Joe Flacco's mature, team-first inclinations aren't surprising, but nor should their role in the Ravens' surge be taken for granted or underestimated. If this is the Super Bowl-winning quarterback's parting gift to Baltimore, it's a valuable one.

+ The element of surprise.

Winning is always a blast. But it's rare, and that much more enjoyable, when you didn't expect it and never anticipated the formula. No one seriously thought a division title was possible when the Ravens were 4-5 in mid-November and trailed the Steelers by 2½ games. And few, if any, envisioned Jackson and Gus Edwards, an undrafted rookie running back, carrying the offensive load in a playoff drive. As a fan, the most satisfying seasons tend to be those that surprise or even shock you. You're experiencing one. Enjoy.

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