Ravens 'Are a Battle-Tested Juggernaut'
The Ravens became part of the Super Bowl conversation weeks ago, but they're no longer just one of the favorites to make it to the big game; they're the favorite to win it.
"The Ravens were given +220 odds to win the Super Bowl on Fanduel, +235 odds on DraftKings and +225 odds on BetOnline," Newsweek's Matthew Impelli wrote. "Each book may give the Baltimore team different odds, but they all have them as the outright favorite above everyone else."
This is unchartered territory for the Ravens (11-2). Despite all the success the franchise has had in the postseason over the years, the Ravens have had a first-round bye in the playoffs just twice and they've never been the No. 1 seed.
Their status as Super Bowl favorites is well-earned. Baltimore enters Thursday night's home game against the New York Jets riding a franchise-best nine-game winning streak, which includes wins over the San Francisco 49ers (11-2), New England Patriots (10-3), Seattle Seahawks (10-3), Buffalo Bills (9-4), Houston Texans (8-5), Los Angeles Rams (8-5) and Pittsburgh Steelers (8-5).
"The Ravens are an absolute machine. They have no weakness," wrote NFL.com's Adam Schein, who put the Ravens at the top of his list of teams most likely to win the Super Bowl. "Baltimore's offense, defense, special teams, coaching, culture and management are at the head of the class.
"Lamar Jackson is the clear leader for NFL MVP (he's getting my Associated Press vote). But it goes beyond the special nature of Lamar. Mark Ingram is a beast running the ball. Mark Andrews is a fantastic tight end. The defense has become great after a rough, injury-riddled start to the season. Justin Tucker is the best kicker in the game, bar none.
"John Harbaugh is a superb head coach (and has been for a decade). Offensive coordinator Greg Roman is getting my vote for Assistant Coach of the Year. General manager Eric DeCosta brilliantly traded for Marcus Peters in October after brilliantly signing Ingram and Earl Thomas in March. (Not to mention, drafting Marquise "Hollywood" Brown in April.)"
The Ravens won five straight games by double digits before beating the 49ers and Bills (on the road) by three and seven points, respectively, the past two weeks. The fact that the Ravens can win hard-fought, physical games that go down to the wire against tough competition is just as impressive as the blowout wins -- perhaps even more so.
"Jackson is the ultimate weapon, and the Ravens can win any style of fight – against any team," Schein wrote. "Since the beginning of October, this team has faced a gauntlet of high-level teams ... and come through it all unscathed. Baltimore's a battle-tested juggernaut."
ESPN's Dan Graziano echoed those sentiments.
"Buffalo's defense was game, but like San Francisco's a week earlier, just couldn't stop Lamar Jackson enough times when it counted. Who can?" Graziano wrote. "There are theories out there that teams seeing the Ravens a second time might be able to solve their offense, as the Chargers did in last season's playoffs. But Jackson is a mismatch factory, and until we see someone come up with a solution, it's tough to envision what it would look like."
While it's undoubtedly a source of pride for Ravens fans to see their team in the unfamiliar role of Super Bowl favorites, Harbaugh and his players have been steadfast in their refusal to get caught up in the hype.
"We haven't done anything yet," linebacker Matthew Judon said after Sunday's win over the Bills. "Just getting in [to the playoffs] isn't enough. We got in last year and it wasn't enough. This game always leaves you wanting more, and you've got to make it to the next day."
Blueprint for Slowing Ravens Offense: Great Players, Bad Weather
After scoring 30-plus points in five straight games – including three in a row of 40-plus – the high-powered Ravens offense was limited to 20 points by the 49ers and 24 by the Bills. The knee-jerk reaction is that teams now have the blueprint on how to slow down what had been an unstoppable force.
Ravens Wire's Matthews Stevens wrote that there is indeed a blueprint, but it consists of a combination of outstanding talent and inclement weather.
"The key is apparently to have a top-three defense and terrible weather that affects everything the offense does," Stevens wrote. "Simple as that really — just need one of the league's best defenses and Mother Nature playing free safety, I guess."
Ravens coaches and players rightfully praised the defenses of the 49ers and Bills, but there's no denying the weather affected the Ravens offense in the two games.
"That's not to take anything away from either the 49ers or Bills, who played fast and physical defense from opening whistle until the final one," Stevens wrote. "But a torrential downpour in 40-degree temperatures against San Francisco made the ball slick and quick-action plays a nightmare. Against Buffalo, 30 mph wind gusts were moving the ball around in its path from the center to Jackson's hands, not to mention how it altered the path of the football once it was actually thrown.
"Both teams largely did the same things every other team has tried to do this season. The difference is the Bills and 49ers had better players at key positions and bad weather helping to make the Ravens a more one-dimensional team."
The bottom line, of course, is that the Ravens still did enough on offense to beat two really good teams.
"Against the 49ers, Baltimore led a 12-play drive of nearly six-and-a-half minutes to score the game-winning field goal as time expired," Stevens wrote. "They mounted two other 13-play drives that took a total of nearly 14-and-a-half minutes off the clock and ended in scores in the first half.
"Against the Bills, the Ravens had a quick score to start the second half and a long drive that ate up valuable time in the fourth quarter. Jackson would have a dramatic turnaround as the wind died down slightly, going 11 of 15 for 115 yards and two touchdowns in the second half."
How Did Bills Game Affect Jackson's MVP Case?
Did Jackson's modest statistics against the Bills – 145 yards passing, 40 yards rushing on 11 carries (3.6 average) – hurt his chances of winning the league MVP award?
The topic was debated by former Ravens tight end Shannon Sharpe and Skip Bayless on "Undisputed." Sharpe said that statistics aside, Jackson's performance against Buffalo strengthened his case for MVP.
"I was very, very impressed with what I saw [Sunday]," Sharpe said. "Considering they took away his legs and they took away for the most part the running game, for him to do what he did and for them to find a way to win, kudos. Lamar Jackson right now … unless he just falls flat on his face, I don't think anyone can catch him in the MVP race."
Bayless noted that Jackson's numbers in Buffalo were "awful by his standards," but agreed with Sharpe that "Lamar's the runaway MVP."
The Athletic's Jeff Zrebiec also believes that Jackson – who has 1,017 rushing yards and is 23 yards away from breaking Michael Vick's single-season record for rushing yards by a quarterback – is the clear favorite in the MVP race.
"I don't know if the race is over, but in my mind, he's opened up some separation on Seattle's Russell Wilson, who has been viewed in many circles as the other frontrunner," Zrebiec wrote. "This comes down to much more than one game, but late-season impressions carry some weight. Two weeks after Jackson torched the Los Angeles Rams defense for five touchdown passes and 95 yards rushing in a 45-6 romp, Wilson went 22 of 36 for 245 yards, no touchdowns, one interception and 28 rushing yards Sunday night. The Seahawks were blown out by the Rams and didn't score an offensive touchdown.
"Jackson currently has more total touchdowns, more touchdown passes and a better quarterback rating than Wilson. When their respective teams met in late-October, the Ravens won, and Jackson had the far better day. There's still time for things to change, but if the vote was held today, I think the winner is pretty obvious."
Derrick Mason: What Harbaugh's Doing Is Remarkable
While Harbaugh is quick to deflect credit for the team's success to the players and his coaching staff, former Ravens wide receiver Derrick Mason said Harbaugh's role cannot be overstated.
Specifically, Mason commended Harbaugh for going all-in on Jackson and building the offense around his unique skill set.
"So, you know, I love John, but what he's doing is remarkable … because John won a Super Bowl doing it one way with defense and Joe Flacco when throwing the ball down the field," Mason, who played three seasons under Harbaugh, told PopCulture.com. "And you know, some coaches have an ego to say, 'OK, I won it before this way. I'm gonna win again doing it this way.' With John, he's not that way. He said, 'You know what, we drafted this guy.'"
Mason, the Ravens' all-time leader in receiving yards, also praised Harbaugh for hiring Greg Roman as offensive coordinator.
"I think the smartest thing he did was hire Greg Roman, who was already on the staff," Mason said. "They have reinvented what an offense looks like because they're doing it."
Mason dispelled the notion that defensive coordinators will eventually solve the Jackson-led offense.
"Lamar Jackson is getting better. He's getting better as a passer," Mason said. "And I said this on our show, I said, 'Listen, once he becomes a consistent 65-, 70-percent passer, the league is done, because there's nothing you can do to stop this guy. The only thing that's going to stop him is injury.'"