Late for Work 12/26: In Race for AFC North, Postseason Contenders Are Not Cheering for Ravens

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In Race for AFC North, Postseason Contenders Are Not Cheering for Ravens

The AFC North champion will be decided on the final day of the season: if the Ravens win, they will be in the playoffs for the first time since 2014. A Baltimore loss and a win by the Pittsburgh Steelers would see the Ravens fall out of the postseason entirely, and Steelers crowned division champs.

It'll be an exciting weekend of football watching for sure, with players and fans of AFC teams already postseason-bound keeping an eye on other games to see what their path to the Super Bowl will be. And, according to a plethora of pundits, don't expect your buddy who cheers for the Kansas City Chiefs or New England Patriots to be rooting for Baltimore to clinch a playoff berth.

"While Pittsburgh is widely viewed as the more talented, explosive team, potential playoff opponents — and especially the defensive coordinators of those teams — will probably be rooting for the Steelers to win the AFC North," Yahoo Sports' Frank Schwab wrote.

Which team has more talent overall is certainly a fair debate, but there's no doubt the Steelers have excellent players, especially on offense. The Steelers just had five offensive players voted to the Pro Bowl, including three along the offensive line, wide receiver Antonio Brown, and running back James Conner. Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster are pretty good, too.

Meanwhile, the Ravens had just one offensive player selected to the Pro Bowl this year: right guard Marshal Yanda. At quarterback, they have a rookie that has started just six games, and the running back group is led by an undrafted rookie free agent. Why would defensive coordinators rather face that bunch than the pedigree that the Steelers have?

"You cannot prepare for [the Ravens] because no other team is playing this way. Whereas other teams are playing offense with all these fireworks, the Ravens are playing an entirely different sport right now," NFL Network's Peter Schrager said during Good Morning Football. "They are playing a sport that the rest of the league in its entirety has to prepare for, in an entirely different way."

Indeed, Baltimore's run-heavy style is extremely difficult to prepare for. With the rest of the league diving into analytics that suggest throwing the ball early and often is the best way to win, the Ravens have gone in the opposite direction, and rushed the ball over 40 times in all but one game quarterback Lamar Jackson has started.

Schwab took a look at how different opponents have tried to prepare for Jackson's unique skillset: Kansas City had to use a cornerback, Atlanta used a trio of wide receivers, while Oakland had a practice squad cornerback/wide receiver playing quarterback for a week. As ESPN's Damien Woody put it, "They are so unconventional that a lot of these teams, it's just hard to prepare for that type of offensive attack that they present."

Having a top defense doesn't hurt, either. The Ravens are No. 1 in scoring (17.5 points per game) and yards allowed per game (284.1). The defense is also in the top 5 in both rushing yards and passing yards allowed.

Running the ball and eating the clock is a unique approach to playing offense, but there is no way the strategy works without a top-tier defense that keeps giving you the ball back.

"Baltimore doesn't need to score 30 points to give teams trouble, and it won't have to come playoff time, either," The Ringer's Robert Mays wrote. "With the way the Ravens defense is playing, there may be games in which Jackson and Co. need half that."

It's a frightening combination that few teams want to deal with in the postseason. It's also one that is more likely to lead to success in the playoffs than what the Steelers have, according to NFL Network's Shannon Sharpe.

"That defense bludgeons you and Lamar Jackson is a difference maker," Sharpe said. "They're averaging over 200 yards a game running the football, and Lamar Jackson can throw the ball just well enough to be dangerous in the playoffs."

Sharpe's NFL Network co-host LaDainian Tomlinson agrees that Baltimore is more dangerous than the Steelers, saying "Anybody with eyeballs who has been watching the last couple weeks can see that it's the Ravens. That's all I've got to say."

"Every AFC contender will be rooting for [Cleveland Browns quarterback] Baker Mayfield to knock out the most dangerous team in the conference," Pro Football Talk's Mike Florio wrote.

Key Non-Quarterback Decisions the Ravens Got Right

As The Baltimore Sun's Jonas Shaffer put it, "It would be easy to separate the Ravens' season into two parts: the one with Joe Flacco as starting quarterback and the one with Lamar Jackson."

Still, there are a lot of reasons why all the Ravens need to do is win on Sunday to reach the postseason, and Shaffer named a few key decisions that were made (not counting the quarterback position) that has the team in its current position.

Starting Orlando Brown Jr.: Brown, a rookie right tackle, has brought plenty of size and physicality to Baltimore's offensive line, which has paved the way for the team's dynamic rushing attack. And the coaches recognized just how much of an impact Brown has had by keeping him as the starting right tackle even when previous starter James Hurst returned from injury.

Hurst has started at left guard in every game since his return, while Brown has maintained his high level of play.

"He's rated among the top rookie offensive tackles all season, according to Pro Football Focus, and has become a reliable source of pancake blocks and play-to-the-whistle nastiness," Shaffer wrote. "Playing next to right guard Marshal Yanda, Brown has helped protect Jackson and restore the Ravens' running game."

Keeping the defensive line fresh: One benefit of Baltimore's run heavy approach has been keeping the defense fresh, especially the big bodies up front. As Shaffer noted, defensive tackles Brandon Williams and Michael Pierce haven't played more than 64 percent and 58.5 percent of the team's snaps on defense in a game, respectively, since Week 7, and defensive end Chris Wormley, who is No. 3 in the rotation, has averaged about 25 snaps over the past eight games.

To Shaffer, a key player in making this happen is outside linebacker Za'Darius Smith, whose versatility has seen him playing inside more than he was earlier in the season. Knowing they have a player who can generate an interior pass rush in later downs, the Ravens "know they can have Williams and Pierce get after it early in drives."

"Despite a pass defense that would seem to encourage rushing, the Ravens haven't allowed 100 yards on the ground since their Week 10 bye," Shaffer wrote.

Solving the punt returner question: Baltimore's punt return game struggled with fumbles when wide receivers Janarion Grant and Tim White were given opportunities to claim the job. The Ravens finally found their solution just before playing the Tennessee Titans in Week 6 when they signed cornerback Cyrus Jones after he had been cut by New England.

Jones has provided a spark in the return game without any fumbles, though he did make a poor decision to try to pick up a bouncing ball against Tampa Bay, which led to a turnover. Outside of that play, Jones has been excellent, averaging 14.4 yards per return and taking one back 70 yards for a touchdown against Oakland. He also had a 55-yard return that set up a go-ahead touchdown in Kansas City.

As Shaffer put it, "Jones has shown a nose for return lanes and a knack for timely big plays."

Click here to see what other decisions Shaffer felt were key to Baltimore's second-half surge.

Baltimore Entrenched Among NFL's Best in Power Rankings

One way to jump up the various NFL power rankings is by beating one of the teams that is consistently ranked in the top five. The Ravens did just that this past weekend, as the Los Angeles Chargers were consistently a top-three team, and even held the top spot on some lists.

After their 22-10 victory in L.A., the Ravens have flown up a few different lists, including NFL.com's Elliot Harrison's, who had Baltimore go from No. 10 to No. 5. As Harrison pointed out, he's been a believer in the Ravens for a while.

"This space took heat for keeping Baltimore parked around 11th in the rankings after the Ravens dropped three games in a row leading into their Week 10 bye," Harrison wrote. "Nobody was paying attention to the competition – [Head Coach] John Harbaugh's guys played the Saints, the Panthers on the road… and the Steelers. Since then, the Ravens' defense has asserted itself, which we all saw clearly Saturday night."

Of the national lists we considered, Baltimore's lowest ranking was given by Yahoo Sports, which still had the team at No. 9. Sports Illustrated and the Washington Post's Mark Maske gave Baltimore its best ranking at No. 4, with Maske writing "The combination of that defense and the Lamar Jackson-led offense has been formidable."

As FanSided's Matt Verderame, who slotted the Ravens in at No. 7, simply summed it up, "Baltimore is peaking at the right time." Let's hope the Ravens stay at that peak.

'Perfect Marriage' With Ravens Playing Big Role in Marlon Humphrey's Development

According to The Draft Network's Jon Ledyard, the two main concerns attached to cornerback Marlon Humphrey in the leadup to the 2017 NFL Draft was his press technique at the line of scrimmage and finding the football vertically. Ledyard concedes those were two legitimate fears about Humphrey, but that didn't stop him from believing in the Alabama product.

"Every single draft I take a chance on a couple of prospects with legit skillset concerns, but that I see every reason to bet on reaching their peak in the NFL," Ledyard wrote. "Those key traits? Athleticism, size, character, football IQ, physicality and a love for the game. Regardless of whether you liked Humphrey as a prospect or not, everyone agreed he possessed each of those traits in droves."

While Humphrey had plenty of things going for him as a prospect, Ledyard believes where a player gets drafted also plays as big a role in how they develop as anything. To him, Humphrey's "ability to play man and zone without any drop-off in performance is so important for Baltimore, and that ability is a reflection of both the coaching he received at Alabama and with the Ravens. It's been a perfect marriage for Humphrey and Baltimore."

It's certainly been an arrangement the Ravens have to be pleased with. Humphrey has played well all season, and has interceptions in back to back games. His most recent interception was named one of the best plays of the week by Pro Football Focus' Gordon McGuinness, who wrote "Humphrey has really taken a step forward in his second season in the league, so it was fitting that it was he who sealed the win over the Chargers."

Humphrey has also done well when it has mattered most, ranking among the best defenders in the NFL at disrupting opposing quarterbacks on third down.

Unsurprisingly, Ledyard believes this is all just the beginning for Humphrey, and that he will continue to stick out "on a defense loaded with studs."

"Humphrey has arguably been the team's best player this season after a strong rookie campaign a year ago," Ledyard wrote. "On his current trajectory, Humphrey looks like he'll be one of the top cornerbacks in the NFL for years to come, outplaying many of the players chosen ahead of him in the draft. Some risky draft selections are smarter than others, and Humphrey has made Baltimore look brilliant for believing he could reach his lofty peak."

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