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Late for Work 12/18: Don't Look Now, Joe Flacco Playing His Best and Intriguing New Playoff Scenario


Don't Look Now, But Joe Flacco Playing His Best Football in December

The Ravens did what they needed to do against the winless Cleveland Browns. Outside of a few interesting moments in the second quarter, Baltimore controlled the game from start to finish for a 27-10 win.

The team largely accomplished its goal by playing clean football (few penalties, no turnovers) and the defense amassing four takeaways. Oh, and this …

"Don’t look now, but quarterback Joe Flacco has played much better since the bye week," wrote The Baltimore Sun's Childs Walker.

"We spent so much of the early part of the season lamenting Flacco's decline that perhaps we haven't recognized his low-key renaissance since the bye week. Not that he's making anyone forget the 2013 playoffs, but he's cut way back on the crippling mistakes while increasing his yardage totals to respectable levels."

Flacco is ascending, and is now playing his best football of the season. The timing couldn't be better, as the Ravens are making their playoff push in the critical month of December.

In the three consecutive games played this month, Flacco has either set or tied his season-highs in passing yards.

Dec. 3 vs. Detroit Lions: 269 yards, 2 touchdowns
Dec. 10 at Pittsburgh Steelers: 269 yards, 2 touchdowns, 1 interception
Dec. 17 at Cleveland Browns: 288 yards, 2 touchdowns (1 rushing)

"Flacco has put together his top three passing games of the season in the past three weeks," wrote Press Box's Bo Smolka. "That was important in this game because the Browns' top-10 run defense stymied the Ravens for much of the game."

Baltimore knew it would be* *tough to run on Browns Defensive Coordinator Gregg Williams' unit, which ranked No. 6 in rush defense heading into the game and No. 1 in average yards per carry. Running back Alex Collins was limited to just 19 yards on 12 carries.

Buck Allen added 70 yards on 13 rushes, mostly after the Ravens already had the game well in hand in the fourth quarter. By and large, it was Flacco and the passing attack that needed to carry the offense Sunday.

There was no bigger moment for the unit than when it responded to the Browns defense stuffing it four times inside the 5-yard line in the second quarter and the Cleveland offense marching 96 yards the other way for a touchdown. Flacco and the offense seemed to get angry and orchestrated an 11-play, 75-yard touchdown drive of their own to answer.

If that was the offensive drive of the day, the play of the day was Flacco's gorgeous 33-yard touch pass that hit tight end Benjamin Watson in stride for a touchdown just before the half.

"Flacco made some genuinely impressive throws in Cleveland," wrote Walker, who also pointed out that Flacco is playing cleaner football.

After throwing 10 interceptions in nine games before the bye, Flacco has thrown just two picks in the five games since. Combine that with increased passing productivity (Flacco only exceeded 200 passing yards four times in the first 11 games), and we're seeing overall upgraded quarterback play.

"It's certainly no coincidence that the Ravens are 4-1 over this stretch of improved play from their quarterback," wrote Walker.

Flacco conceded after the game that the offense has played better over the last couple weeks, and said their outing against the Pittsburgh Steelers, while disappointing because they didn't seal the win, was encouraging because "we proved a lot to ourselves."

Outside linebacker Terrell Suggs was asked about Flacco's play after Sunday's game, and he responded similarly to when he's been asked about the defense's success. He said things are headed in the right direction, but added Flacco and the offense aren't done yet.

"We know how 'Joe Cool' can play when he gets hot. He's just got to get hot. He can't be so 'Joe Cool,'" Suggs said with a smile. "He played really well today. If he comes out and plays well against Indy on Saturday, then we got something."

Sixth Seed? Shoot, Suddenly the Fifth Seed Is a Realistic Possibility

We've been so focused on the Ravens (8-6) making the playoffs via the sixth and final wild-card seed that few people have been talking about the possibility of getting the AFC's fifth seed.

Well, that became a very realistic possibility after the Tennessee Titans (8-6) dropped one against the suddenly-hot San Francisco 49ers, who have won three consecutive games with Jimmy Garoppolo taking over the starting quarterback job.The 49ers had lost 10 of their first 11 games, and Garoppolo is about to become a very rich man for orchestrating the turnaround.

The Ravens, Titans and Buffalo Bills all now have identical records, and if all three win out, Baltimore will get the fifth seed because of the three-way common opponents tiebreaker. (Baltimore would lose a 10-6 two-way tie to the Titans because of the head-to-head tiebreaker, but would win a two-way 10-6 tie against the Bills because of the common opponents tiebreaker.)

That said, tiebreakers may not be needed if the Ravens win out. Both Tennessee and Buffalo have more difficult final stretches than Baltimore.

The Titans face the NFC West-leading L.A. Rams (10-4) and the AFC South-leading Jacksonville Jaguars (10-4) to close the season. The Bills will take on the AFC East-leading New England Patriots (11-3) and Miami Dolphins (6-8). 

If either the Titans or Bills drop at least one game, that would leave the door open for the Ravens to win the fifth seed outright. Getting the fifth seed could mean that Baltimore would dodge the Jaguars, who pounded the Ravens 44-7 in Week 3, and instead draw the Kansas City Chiefs (8-6).

The most important thing right now for Baltimore, however, is taking care of business against the Indianapolis Colts (3-11) and Cincinnati Bengals (5-9) at home.

"Baltimore controls its own playoff fate heading into the final two weeks of the regular season," wrote ESPN. "If the Ravens beat the Colts and Bengals – who lost by a combined score of 59-20 this week – they will clinch a playoff berth."

Best Ravens Connection Right Now Is Sam Koch to Chris Moore

Flacco and Mike Wallace were heating up yesterday, connecting six times for 89 yards. Flacco and Watson were impressive too, hooking up for 74 yards on four catches.

But maybe they were outdone by another duo.

"Forget Joe Flacco to Mike Wallace," wrote Smolka. "The Ravens' best combination was Sam Koch to Chris Moore. Ravens punter Sam Koch has had a Pro Bowl-type [season], and he and punt-team gunner Chris Moore proved to be a lethal combination against the Browns."

Koch pinned the Browns inside their own 5-yard line three times, and on each occasion, it was Moore who raced down the field to finish the jo by downing the ball before it could roll into the end zone.

The punter should be awarded a hockey assist for the defensive sack-strip-score in the third quarter. Koch put the defense in position to notch the turnover and touchdown by pinning the Browns at the 4-yard line.

"Field position isn't always sexy, but it can make a huge difference, and all season Koch has done a tremendous job dictating field position," Smolka wrote. "He leads the league with 37 punts inside the opposing 20-yard line."

How Long Can Ravens Survive With Receiving Corps?

The ironic thing about Flacco and the passing offense's recent surge is they've largely done it without receivers Jeremy Maclin and Breshad Perriman, who each had one catch in Cleveland.

Maclin has only caught eight passes for 90 yards and no touchdowns in the last three games. Perriman was active Sunday for the first time since Nov. 27 against the Houston Texans, when he caught one pass for 9 yards.* *

"How far can the Ravens go without a No. 3 WR? Or even a No. 2?" asked Smolka.

"The Ravens marched to another win, but Jeremy Maclin left the game with a knee injury, leaving a wide receiver group of Mike Wallace … and who?"

Flacco leaned heavily on Wallace and Watson, and the bulk of the rest of the passes went to the running backs. Danny Woodhead caught six for 31 yards and Collins added five for 33. Moore has come on strong lately, but finished Sunday's game with zero catches on three targets. He had one drop.

Maclin left the game after his first catch of the day – an impressive 22-yarder while he took a big hit to the midsection. He returned briefly before leaving again for good.

After the game, Head Coach John Harbaugh said that Maclin's knee injury didn't appear serious, but he would know more after the nine-year vet gets an MRI today.

"[W]hether Maclin returns to 100 percent or not, some of these other receivers need to step up and become impact players if the Ravens have any designs on a playoff run," wrote Smolka. 

Baltimore May Not Have Most Suffocating Defense, But It's the Top Playmaking Defense

With their four-turnover performance, the Ravens took back the league lead in turnovers from* *the Jaguars. Baltimore now has 33 on the year (plus-17 turnover margin), and Jacksonville has 31 (plus-15).

"The reason many teams don't want to see the Baltimore Ravens in the postseason is because of their defense," wrote ESPN. "It's far from the most suffocating defense in the NFL, but it's the NFL's best big-play one, which makes the Ravens dangerous if they can make the playoffs."* *

The Ravens defense has given up its fair share of yards this season. Giving up 324.7 yards per game puts the group at No. 10 in the league. That's not a bad ranking, and at the same time, the unit expects more from itself.

It can get even better by cleaning up mistakes. The defense played a strong game against the Browns, but had a weak moment when it allowed running back Isaiah Crowell to break off a 59-yard rush that set up the Browns' only touchdown.

"Baltimore can't tout itself as the best defense. The Ravens make too many mistakes," ESPN wrote. "But the Ravens defense continues to change the momentum of games [with turnovers].

"This has been Baltimore's most reliable path to victory this season. Takeaways equal wins. The Ravens are now 7-1 when they force multiple turnovers and they're 1-5 when they don't." 

Brandon Williams Apologized to Fans for Not Having a Celebration Dance Prepared Dang it, Brandon!

You had the golden opportunity to show off your dancing skills, and YOU BLEW IT (Adam Sandler voice).

The Ravens' big man scored his first NFL touchdown by falling on a fumble, caused by outside linebacker Za'Darius Smith, in the end zone. Everyone wanted to see the 340-pounder put his renowned dancing skills on full display.

But instead … he did a boring spike of the ball?!?!

C'mon, man.

We appreciate the apology, B-Will. It just hurts knowing that this opportunity may not come around again for a very, very long time, if ever.

Williams said after the game the last time he scored a touchdown was in high school when he got a pick-six against quarterback Blaine Gabbert, who ended up being a first-round pick (2011) and is the current starter of the Arizona Cardinals.* *

Important Lesson (and News) From Steelers-Patriots Game

I'm sure few Ravens fans had sympathy for the Steelers last night when their game-winning touchdown was wiped off the board against the New England Patriots because of a weird catch rule. That said, I bet few Ravens fans disagree with former Ravens wide receiver Torrey Smith's* *take on the league's catch rule.

That rule is trash btw — Torrey Smith (@TorreySmithWR) December 18, 2017

Even if Smith's former teammates in Baltimore agree that the rule is "trash," it's immensely important they understand it. At the end of the day, players are taking a major risk by stretching out for the end zone, as FOX Sports analyst and former NFL VP of officiating Mike Pereira explains below.

On another note, Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown, who has pushed the dagger in the Ravens in the last two December games with big plays, left the game with a major calf injury. Brown was taken to the hospital to get it looked at.

Brown reportedly has a partially torn calf and is expected to miss the rest of the regular season, but he could be back for the playoffs. That means, if Baltimore meets the Steelers again in the postseason, Brown should be playing.

Quick Hits

Tucker, Koch and Cox are undoubtedly the best special teams trio in the NFL. For almost six years now they've been nothing short of spectacular together — Joe Schiller (@JoeSchillerr) December 17, 2017

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