The Ravens find themselves in a familiar position, facing key December games that will make or break their playoff hopes.
Heartbreaking December losses to the Pittsburgh Steelers (2016) and Cincinnati Bengals (2017) on last-minute plays have knocked out the Ravens the past two seasons. But as early as Week 3, safety Eric Weddle warned people not to compare the 2018 Ravens to teams of the recent past.
"It ain't the same Ravens," Weddle said after a come-from-behind victory over the Denver Broncos in September. "I'm telling you that right now."
Weddle will get no argument if the Ravens make the playoffs for the first time since 2014. But it won't be easy, starting with Saturday night's road game against the Los Angeles Chargers (11-3), the NFL's hottest team riding a four-game winning streak.
The Ravens are 8-6 for the third straight year, and if they don't win their last two games, they could just miss the playoffs – again. However, this 8-6 team has a different feel to it.
Here are five reasons why the 2018 Ravens seem better equipped to reach the playoffs:
Strong Running Game
What the Ravens are doing with the running game is beyond impressive. It's historic. They are the first NFL team to rush for at least 190 yards in five consecutive games since the 1976 Steelers.
Nobody has contained their running game since Lamar Jackson became the starting quarterback five games ago, and Gus Edwards became the starting running back. Jackson may be the fastest player ever to play quarterback, and because opponents must respect his speed, it makes them more vulnerable to being pounded between the tackles by Edwards and Kenneth Dixon.
"He's the reincarnation of Michael Vick," Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive tackle Gerald McCoy said after facing Jackson on Sunday. "He's a lot faster than you think on the field. When you see him in person, he can really run. He controls the offense well. They put him in great positions – he's going to be good for a long time."
The Chargers have the top-ranked run defense (9th overall) that Jackson has faced. But the Ravens have used different blocking schemes and misdirection to make subtle changes to their running attack every week. If the running game is dominant against the Chargers, and in Week 17 against the Cleveland Browns, the Ravens have an excellent chance to win both games.
A Fresh Defense
Baltimore's ability to dominate time of possession the past month has allowed the defense to play fewer snaps in November and December. Key veteran defensive players such as linebackers Terrell Suggs and C.J. Mosley, defensive tackle Brandon Williams and cornerback Brandon Carr look fresh, not worn down by the long season.
It will be a difficult task to contain a quarterback like the Chargers' Philip Rivers for four quarters. Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes make game-winning plays to beat the Ravens in Week 14, despite the Ravens hitting him 15 times and sacking him on three. Rivers has the same kind of toughness, and the ability to make the kind of late-game throws that have sunk the Ravens before.
"The thing that's jumped out to me watching the tape of him [that] I'm really, really impressed by is his courage," Ravens Head Coach John Harbaugh said of Rivers. "He stands in there, and he waits until the last second. He's not waiting just to wait; he's waiting because he has something coming open, and he'll throw it to a spot. Most of the time it works out well for him. Sometimes you get it – sometimes you pick it off. He only holds it when he absolutely has to, and he'll take a sack if he has to. He gets the most out of every play."
However, the Ravens have a ball-control offense capable of playing keep-away from Rivers. Harbaugh would love to see Saturday's game end with Jackson taking a knee, not with Rivers holding the football and Ravens' fans holding their breath.
"We know how hard it is to get stops at the end and to win games and to finish," Harbaugh said. "So, it means a lot to finish the game on offense, not put your defense back on the field. It means everything when you have the lead."
NFL's No. 1-Ranked Defense and Momentum
Winning four of their last five games, the Ravens are playing their most consistent football at the right time. That guarantees nothing, but they appear to be peaking.
The Chargers are also hot, having won 10 of their last 11 games and victories over the Chiefs and Steelers in the past three weeks. And they have the advantage of playing at home Saturday, with the Ravens facing a cross-country trip and a short week.
However, a strong defense travels well. The Ravens have the NFL's No. 1 ranked-defense through Week 15, a defense that is better than any they've had the past three years. It's actually easier for Baltimore's defense to communicate when it's on the road and the crowd is quiet.
Improved Depth and Health
The Ravens have answers when they lose players to injuries. They are deep at tight end, deep at cornerback, deep at running back, deep at quarterback, deep in enough spots that the Ravens have more options than many teams in December.
It hasn't been just top players like cornerback Marlon Humphrey and Jackson making plays. Wide receiver Chris Moore, tight end Nick Boyle, and running back Kenneth Dixon are stepping up making key contributions.
The past two years, injuries at cornerback left more inexperienced players in tough positions in key late-season losses.
The Right Mindset
Losing tiebreakers and finishing with fewer than 10 wins has taught the Ravens some tough lessons in recent years. They hoped to enter late December with fate in their own hands, not relying on the outcome of other games to determine their ending.
It hasn't totally worked out that way, but the Ravens are almost guaranteed a playoff spot if they win their last two games. The Ravens are not a playoff team yet, but they look and sound like a team that belongs. When you have the league's No. 10-ranked defense, and the No. 1-rushing offense the past five weeks, it's hard not to think positive.
"Five weeks ago, I don't think anybody was giving us a chance," wide receiver Willie Snead IV said. "If we win out, shoot we might take the division, we might have a home game. Whatever happens, happens, but we're very fortunate to be in this situation. … I think our mindset right now is just to focus on L.A., and get ready for a Saturday night showdown."