Late For Work 11/14: Ravens In Sole Possession Of AFC North Lead After Steelers' Loss

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Ravens In Sole Possession Of AFC North Lead After Steelers' Loss

Before becoming the enemy this week, Dallas Cowboys rookies Ezekiel Elliott and Dak Prescott were heroes in Baltimore last night.

In a thrilling 35-30 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers, the young duo led the offense on back-to-back 75-yard scoring drives in the fourth quarter. The Steelers inexplicably forgot to defend Elliott as he ran for a 14-yard touchdown with two minutes remaining, and then a game-winning 32-yarder with nine seconds to go.

Ezekiel Elliot's game-winning touchdown. #DALvsPIT pic.twitter.com/Qs5yCxhapp — Erick Fernandez (@ErickFernandez) November 14, 2016

"We've never seen two rookies do what they're doing, this fast, in Dallas. Elliott, the fourth pick in last spring's draft, and Prescott, the 135th, are 1-2 in the Offensive Rookie of the Year race right now," wrote TheMMQB.com's Peter King.

The Steelers (4-5) put up a valiant fight in a game in which we saw seven lead changes, but in the end, they dropped their fourth consecutive game, which gives Baltimore (5-4) sole possession of the AFC North lead. The Ravens are technically up by 1.5 games because they own a head-to-head tiebreaker over Pittsburgh. They still have another matchup with the Steelers in Week 16.

The last time the Ravens were the division's outright leader in November was in 2012 before their Super Bowl run.

My how quickly things change in the NFL.

"Just over a week ago, the Ravens were coming off the bye with their season dangerously close to circling the drain before Thanksgiving," wrote WNST's Luke Jones.

"Two victories and two Pittsburgh losses later, Baltimore wakes up Monday in sole possession of first place in the AFC North. That winless October now feels like a long time ago as the 5-4 Ravens are the only team in the division above .500."

The Ravens will now cheer on the New York Giants (5-3), who take on another division rival, the Cincinnati Bengals (3-4-1), on Monday Night Football.

As happy as Baltimore was to see Dallas prevail, the mindset quickly shifts to shutting the Cowboys down in this week's upcoming game at AT&T Stadium.

It will be the first time that quarterback Tony Romo, who has led the Cowboys for more than a decade, will be healthy enough to play after back surgery. But Dallas Owner Jerry Jones already announced Romo will back up the rookie, who has earned the starting role with eight wins in his first nine career games. Prescott has thrown 14 touchdown passes to just two interceptions.

Nobody will give the Ravens much of a chance to win against the team with the NFL's best record (8-1). They open up as seven-point underdogs. The offense has struggled throughout the first half of the season, but there's optimism Baltimore could pull off the win because it has the league's best defense, including the NFL's best rush defense, which won't forget about Elliott like the Steelers did.

"The Ravens' problems on offense can't be dismissed despite a 22-point second-half outburst against Cleveland on Thursday, but a very strong defense and the Steelers' struggles suddenly make the path to a division title appear less daunting," wrote Jones.

"The chances of a wild card appear bleak for any AFC North team with the AFC West currently sporting three seven-win teams, but a 9-7 record is looking more and more like the mark to win the division. And even with the difficult remaining schedule, that goal looks more attainable after a fruitful eight days for the Ravens."

Was Offensive Breakout A Sign Of Things To Come, Or Product Of Playing A Bad Defense?

After going 17 offensive drives without a touchdown, it was a joy to see quarterback Joe Flacco throw three for scores. Along the way, we saw a formidable one-two punch emerge with running backs Terrence West and Kenneth Dixon. Wide receiver Breshad Perriman caught his first touchdown. There were more third-down conversions and short slant catches turned into big gains.

It led to Mannequin celebrations and smiles on the sideline.

But …

"Did the Ravens truly find something that they can build on offensively or did they simply take advantage of one of the league's worst defenses?" asked The Baltimore Sun's Jeff Zrebiec.

The Browns ranked as the second-worst overall defense, rush defense and scoring defense heading into the game, and even Flacco conceded that may have had something to do with the offense's emergence.

"It's tough to answer that because it still comes down to going out there next Sunday when we line up again and doing it because we're not going to be playing the Cleveland Browns," Flacco said. "We're going to be lining up against somebody else. You don't live on what you did the previous week. I think it does give guys confidence, and it can be a big plus, but it still comes down to how we go out there and respond to it."

As of Monday morning, the Cowboys defense is ranked No. 12 overall in the league. So the unit will present a much tougher matchup than the Browns.

There are a couple of reasons for optimism, however. First, when Flacco gets hot, he gets really hot and can ride that wave for a long time. If you watch the NFL Network video below, the film breakdown shows Flacco doing special things.

It's not like the Browns defense simply gave him easy touchdown passes. Instead, he stepped into his throws with confidence and threaded the needle on a couple game-changing plays. The offense also may have found a few other strengths that would be smart to continue to employ.

"Marty Mornhinweg should continue using the crossing routes and slants we saw in the second half against the Browns," wrote Jones. "There's no reason not to use the speed of Mike Wallace and Breshad Perriman while letting Flacco get rid of the ball quickly.

"They can't do it exclusively, but the no-huddle offense [also] needs to become a bigger part of what the Ravens do after it led to two touchdowns in the second half. It could put some strain on the defense, but you have to do whatever it takes to get Flacco going."

For now, all we can do is chalk it up to a good first step, but the Ravens would need something close to a repeat performance against Dallas to believe they are truly headed in the right direction, ESPN's Jamison Hensley told WBAL Friday.

Rodney Harrison Gives Props To Steve Smith

We all know veteran wide receiver Steve Smith Sr. was not happy with NBC NFL analyst Rodney Harrison when he said the Ravens are in trouble because their best receiver was a 37-year-old veteran coming off Achilles surgery.

"I respect the heck out of Rodney Harrison, but don't take digs at me, because I dig back and dig deeper," Smith replied Thursday night after beating Cleveland. "My shovel's bigger than your shovel."

Well, Harrison has since clarified what he meant.

"I've said in the past that Steve should be a Hall of Famer," Harrison told ProFootballTalk.com. "I've also said he was one of the toughest receivers I ever played against. What he is doing at age 37 is remarkable. However, coming off a major injury and having played in my late 30s, I know how the body can break down, so I stand by my comments. I understand the importance of having balance on offense and defense. That's my perspective.

"I respect Steve, and wish I could have played with him. I wish him good luck. The rest of the season should be fun to watch."

Added PFT's Mike Florio: "The truth is that Harrison wasn't criticizing Smith. He was criticizing the Ravens for not having younger options at the top of the depth chart."

Oh, ok. That's better then.

Legitimate Concerns About Offensive Line

Sometimes in a season, injuries hit one position and hit it hard.

That has happened in Baltimore in the past when the cornerbacks corps was decimated. Now, it seems like the offensive line is taking a beating.

The Ravens finally got back No. 6 overall pick and left tackle Ronnie Stanley after four games, but the interior offensive line is now in trouble. Left guard Alex Lewis doesn't look to be back anytime soon after a serious injury to his ankle Thursday, center Jeremy Zuttah gutted out the game with an ankle injury of his own, and right guard Marshal Yanda missed the game altogether with a shoulder injury.

"It's looking more and more like the offensive line problems aren't going to be fixed this season. Lewis had looked good at left guard the last two games while the status of five-time Pro Bowl right guard Marshal Yanda remains in question," wrote Jones. "Those are crippling losses."

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