Eisenberg: This Sunday’s Game Is the Real Big Deal

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Sunday’s game in Kansas City certainly had the look and feel of a Big Deal. The Ravens and Chiefs were both undefeated going in. There was a ton of buzz. The game was televised in much of the country.

As you may have heard, the Ravens didn’t win.

Normally, losing a game that’s a Big Deal sets a team back. But the Ravens’ prospects are still promising. They’re in first place in the AFC North with a 2-1 record. The other three teams in the division are a combined 1-8. The Pittsburgh Steelers are 0-3 and without Ben Roethlisberger for the rest of the season.

If they beat the Cleveland Browns Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium, the Ravens would own a two-game lead in the division race before September’s end. That doesn’t guarantee anything, as the Steelers can attest after squandering a big lead down the stretch in 2018. But it’s certainly encouraging.

It means this Sunday’s game is the real Big Deal, with a broad difference in fortunes resting on the outcome. A win gives the Ravens command of the division, while a loss means they’d be tied with the Browns for first, with a rematch slated for Cleveland in December.

The Ravens will enter the game with a lot of confidence, even coming off a defeat. They weren’t especially sharp on either side of the ball in Kansas City, yet they only lost by five points to one of the NFL’s best teams.

“That team is no better than us. But they played better than us,” Ravens Head Coach John Harbaugh said Monday, setting the tone.

If anything, the result may have indicated that just a few teams are ahead of the Ravens in the AFC’s pecking order.

Of course, the game also illustrated that the Ravens are still a work in progress. Lamar Jackson is a brilliant playmaker and dogged competitor; watching him stand in the pocket and scan the field, it’s clear the pro game is slowing down for him, a promising sign. But he’s also still young and susceptible to growing pains. And as for the defense, well, there’s quite a bit to ingest right now.

It’s no secret the secondary is struggling. Injuries to cornerbacks Tavon Young and Jimmy Smith are a factor, but they don’t explain the many receivers who’ve run free for big gains in the past two games. Only five teams have allowed more passing yards.

“We’re not the type of team that gives up big plays, and we’re not happy about that at all. And that will get fixed,” Harbaugh said.

Also on that side of the ball, the pass rush wasn’t a difference-maker Sunday, while the Chiefs had all sorts of success on the ground, averaging 5.4 yards per rushing attempt. The Ravens’ stout interior got pushed around at times and the edges didn’t hold.

Reaffirming the notion that these are no longer your father’s Ravens, Baltimore is tied for No. 16 in total defense and ranks No. 1 in total offense through three games. Did anyone see that coming?

We’ll probably see some adjustments to those rankings in the long run, with the defense rising and the offense falling. But regardless, they crystallize a truth that we always suspected, namely, that these Ravens will go as far as Jackson takes them. He stands clear and alone as their No. 1 variable.

The organization’s decisionmakers are fine with that. They love what they’re seeing from their quarterback, even in defeat. He isn’t conventional, but the Ravens, you may have noticed, are embracing unconventionality in many forms.

They’re starting two rookie wide receivers, as opposed to playing it safe with veterans. They’re rolling the dice on fourth downs and two-point conversions. Giving Jackson the latitude to fully deploy his unique skillset is another example.

It’s bold, but it’s all working reasonably well so far, even after Sunday’s loss. The Ravens are atop a division they won a year ago, with an opportunity to tighten their grip Sunday – at home. Even coming off a disappointing defeat, they wouldn’t trade places with many teams.

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