Stakes in L.A.: Run the Table or Run Out of Seats
There's no question that this Saturday's game in Los Angeles is a massive one for the Ravens. A win could have the Ravens atop the AFC North by the end of the weekend, and just needing a win against the Cleveland Browns at home to clinch a playoff berth. A loss could see Baltimore eliminated from postseason contention just 24 hours later.
The stakes are obviously high, but NFL.com's Gregg Rosenthal believes there is even more on the line for the Ravens than just staying alive in the postseason chase.
"If the Ravens can win in Los Angeles, it wouldn't be crazy to call them a Super Bowl contender," Rosenthal wrote. "Then again, a loss here could wind up knocking them out of the playoffs."
Qualifying for the postseason is one thing, but becoming a team that could realistically win the Super Bowl? That puts you in a different category.
Rosenthal also may have a point. If the Ravens beat the Chargers, they will have topped the team with the second-best record (after flying cross country on a short week while the Chargers have two extra days of rest … sorry, complaining over). The Ravens also had the lead with a minute to go against Kansas City, the No. 1 seed in the AFC, on the road, and only lost because of an unreal play by an NFL MVP candidate. Baltimore also beat Pittsburgh, the current AFC North leader, on the road.
Add in other factors like the New England Patriots struggling recently, and it isn't crazy to see that the Ravens could make some serious noise in the playoffs.
For Rosenthal, the reason the Ravens are so dangerous is their rushing attack, spearheaded by a pair of rookies in quarterback Lamar Jackson and running back Gus Edwards, has been performing at an historic rate. With the team's 242 rushing yards against Tampa Bay, Baltimore became the first team since 1976 to rush for at least 190 yards in five straight contests.
"The schedule has undeniably helped, but it's remarkable how difficult it is to stop a read option led by Jackson on third down," Rosenthal wrote. "Jackson, Edwards and [running back Kenneth] Dixon combined to force 16 missed tackles Sunday against Tampa, according to Pro Football Focus, consistently beating defenders in space. The threat of Jackson running creates so many opportunities, and it feels like he can get five yards to the outside anytime he wants."
Do you think the Chiefs want a rematch with Baltimore after needing overtime to win the first time? Or would the Patriots, who just gave up 158 yards to the 30th-ranked rushing offense, be excited about facing the Ravens?
Yes, there are a lot of aspects of the Ravens that would make them a dangerous playoff team. But don't forget, a loss, coupled with other results on Sunday, could be the end of Baltimore even getting to the tournament. What a range of results.
As Pro Football Talk's Mike Florio put it when describing the Ravens, "A team that could run the table is still scratching and clawing for a seat there."
Slowing Elite Offenses Is Nothing New for the Ravens
There are plenty of reasons why the Ravens could win in Los Angeles on Saturday, but playing against a meek offense is not one of them. In the Chargers, the Ravens are up against the No. 6 unit in the NFL in terms of yards per game (392).
Though the Chargers have done well this season, the Ravens Flock can take solace in knowing this is nothing new for the defense. The Ravens have already played six games against five teams currently ranked in the top 10 in yards per game. It's also the fourth straight contest for the Ravens against a top-10 offense.
While most defenses would have folded with this schedule, the Ravens have more than held their own. The Ravens are 3-3 in games against top 10 offenses, showing they are more than capable of getting a win on Saturday against another excellent offense.
Below is how the defense has done against the top-10 offenses, which was compiled by The Athletic's Jeff Zrebiec, and it shows that the defense has given the NFL's best units plenty of trouble:
Chiefs (ranked No.1): Average points per game: 36.3; Average yards per game: 426.2
Points scored on Ravens: 27 (OT); Yards gained on Ravens: 441
Buccaneers (ranked 3rd): Average points per game: 25.5: Average yards per game: 430.1
Points scored on Ravens: 12; Yards gained on Ravens: 241
Steelers (ranked 4th): Average points per game: 28.9; Average yards per game: 416.8
Average points vs. Ravens: 18.5 (two games); Average yards vs. Ravens: 339.5
Saints (ranked 7th): Average points per game: 33.5; Average yards per game: 389.5
Points scored on Ravens: 24; Yards gained on Ravens: 339
Falcons (ranked 9th): Average points per game: 26.2; Average yards per game: 398.4
Points scored on Ravens: 16 (included def. TD): Yards gained on Ravens: 131
All five teams have on average been held to at least nine points less than what they've scored all season. Only the Chiefs gained more yards than their average, which happened because of the overtime period.
Yes, the defense has a big challenge on Saturday, but this group has done well against top competition all season. Why can't they do it again?
Which Quarterback Has More Momentum: Lamar Jackson or Philip Rivers?
It's tough to find two quarterbacks that are entering Week 16 with as much momentum as Jackson and Los Angeles' Philip Rivers.
Jackson has gone 4-1 in his first five starts and been the catalyst in Baltimore's running game becoming one of the best in the NFL, while Rivers has the Chargers on a four-game winning streak.
NFL Network's Good Morning Football compared both quarterbacks, and asked which has had the more impressive five-game stretch. Analysts Nate Burleson and Kay Adams both selected Rivers, saying that the 37-year-old is in the midst of playing his best football during his career. He has played well in road victories against Kansas City and Pittsburgh, something the Ravens Flock knows is difficult to do.
"What Philip Rivers is doing right now isn't proving himself to be a good quarterback," Adams said. "He is writing his legacy."
Peter Schrager and Kyle Brandt both went with Jackson. Schrager's reasoning for picking Jackson is about expectations. Rivers is an established veteran who has been successful in the NFL for a long time, while Jackson had to learn how to start in the NFL midway through his rookie season.
"We talk about all the running, but also the passing, which is lightyears ahead of what people expected of him, considering there were a lot of people who said he wasn't ready to play year one at quarterback," Schrager said. "He's got more rushing yards in the past five games than [Los Angeles Rams running back] Todd Gurley, he's got more rushing first downs these past five games than [Tennessee Titans running back] Derrick Henry. In all seriousness, based on expectations, coming in for a 4-5 team off the bench, I think we thought there'd be a little razzle dazzle, maybe he would do some things, but Lamar Jackson has won games and has the team's confidence."
Jackson's play has certainly sparked the Ravens. Remember, not only did the Ravens have a losing record when the rookie started his first game, but they were also mired in a three-game losing streak.
No, Jackson has not won these games solely on his own - the defense has been excellent, and other players like Edwards have stepped up – but his play has definitely been a major factor, and he has plenty of momentum right now.
Run-Heavy Approach Aids Offensive Line
There has been plenty of focus on how the run-heavy offense the Ravens have implemented with Jackson under center has helped the defense. It's true that keeping the ball has made the defense fresher, but Zrebiec also believes all the running the Ravens have been doing has also helped another group: the offensive line.
"What we probably haven't discussed enough is how much he has helped protect the offensive line," Zrebiec wrote. "Pass rushers haven't been able to just pin their ears back and get after Jackson because they have to play the run and worry about keeping the quarterback in the pocket."
This is a good point, as the Ravens have given up just two sacks per game since the bye. Having a quarterback as elusive as Jackson certainly makes it tough for an opposing defense to apply pressure, but that has also been aided by how efficient the run game has been. It's made the job easier for the offensive line, which PFF rated as the No. 14 unit in the NFL.
This is especially relevant this week because one of the major strengths of the Chargers defense is their ability to pressure the quarterback through outside linebackers Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram, who was selected to the Pro Bowl. With Baltimore's strategy on offense, it should make it trickier for the dangerous duo to impact the game.
"That's not to say that Chargers edge rushers Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram won't make plays Saturday," Zrebiec wrote. "However, if the Ravens stay out of regular third and longs, that will help neutralize them."
- The selections for this season's Pro Bowl were announced yesterday, and three Ravens were picked: guard Marshal Yanda, safety Eric Weddle and inside linebacker C.J. Mosley. Though it is exciting that those three were honored, there are a few Ravens who you could argue were snubbed, none more so than kicker Justin Tucker. NFL.com's Nick Shook referred to the selection of New York Jets kicker Jason Myers over Tucker as a "head-scratcher, to say the least." When the news was announced, Ravens fans and pundits were not pleased.
- NFL Network's Brian Baldinger looked at the game film from this past Sunday to figure out how the offense has done so well with Jackson quarterbacking. "The Chargers will have their hands full this weekend," Baldinger said. "It's going to look like a playoff game."