Late for Work 12/28: Contenders? Ravens Are Playing Like One of the NFL's Best

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QB Lamar Jackson

Ravens Are Getting Hot at the Right Time

The Ravens came into Sunday needing a win and outside help to make the postseason.

They finished the day in control of their own playoff destiny, and with a belief from pundits that they can be a legitimate Super Bowl contender.

"The Ravens are a team no one wants to see right now in the playoffs," NFL.com's Kevin Patra wrote. "The unique brand of football, coupled with the fact that they're playing on fire right now, makes them a dangerous postseason opponent."

"There are certain things they do really well that I think will be problems no matter who they face," ESPN's Tim Hasselbeck said. "... They've stumbled at parts of the season, but [the Ravens] will be a dangerous team if they get the opportunity."

Like last week, everything about the 27-13 win over the New York Giants felt dominant. The Ravens jumped out to an early 14-0 first quarter lead and never looked back.

After a win by the Pittsburgh Steelers and loss for the Cleveland Browns, the playoff picture is clear for the Ravens. Oddsmakers almost have them as a guarantee to make the playoffs.

While the Ravens aren't looking ahead beyond the Bengals, pundits have their eyes on the postseason.

"[I]f the Ravens are able to beat the Bengals, it's clear the narrative around the AFC will be about how the Ravens are the wild card team to avoid," NBC Sports' Andrew Gillis wrote. "There will be plenty of evidence to suggest that's the case."

"With [Lamar] Jackson back in MVP form and the Ravens back to their winning ways, Baltimore could rush right into the postseason and all the way to Super Bowl LV," Bleacher Report's Kristopher Knox wrote.

Jackson has looked like the reigning MVP since returning from the Reserve/COVID-19 list, the run game is shaping into a dominant force, and the defense is peaking. It feels like last season, but the Ravens' final postseason push is much different.

There won't be any debate about resting players in the season finale. The Ravens' most obvious path to the playoffs is a win against the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 17.

The NFL is a week-to-week league and we've seen the teams who get hot towards the end of the season have success in January. The Ravens fall firmly in that category.

"The Ravens now control their playoff fate, which is bad news for the rest of the AFC," ESPN's Jamison Hensley wrote. "Baltimore, which can clinch its third consecutive playoff berth with a win in Cincinnati, is looking like the bully that pushed around teams last season. The Ravens have won four straight games and have gained more than 200 yards rushing in three of them. If this ground game continues to roll, Baltimore can make noise in the postseason after two straight one-and-done appearances in the playoffs."

Pass Rush Continues to Peak

The pass rush has been a topic of conversation throughout the season, but it's clearly peaking at the right time.

"Entering Week 16, the Ravens ranked middle-of-the-pack in the NFL as a team in sacks but were still near the top of the list in QB hits," Baltimore Beatdown's Frank Platko wrote. "This suggests that the Ravens have been able to get consistent pressure on quarterbacks this season but have struggled to finish plays — which there is some truth to.

"After failing to bring Baker Mayfield down against the Browns in Week 14, the Ravens pass rush has come to life over the past two games. In last week's win over the Jaguars, Baltimore racked up five sacks and seven QB hits. Against the Giants, they exceeded these totals."

Part of it is based on the opponent. The Browns have one of the best offensive lines in the NFL. The Jaguars and Giants, however, are among the league leaders in sacks allowed this season.

After not sacking Mayfield once in their 47-42 win on Monday Night Football, the Ravens had a five-sack performance against the Jacksonville Jaguars last week, and sacked Daniel Jones six times on Sunday.

Jones came into the game as one of the most pressured quarterbacks this season, and Defensive Coordinator Wink Martindale's unit took advantage. They totaled 11 quarterback hits and created consistent pressure in the pocket as the Giants were forced to play catch up for most of the game.

Platko said it was encouraging to see the pass rush come in a group effort. Five Ravens recorded a sack including Chris Board (team-high two sacks) and rookie Justin Madubuike.

"It's fair to question how much of this recent development can be attributed to facing softer offensive lines," Platko added. "Regardless, it's encouraging to see consistent pressure on opposing quarterbacks from multiple sources — and even more encouraging to see defenders top it off with sacks."

Offense's Success Fueled on Long, Sustained Drives

Much of the Ravens' record-breaking offensive success last season was predicated on controlling time possession and executing on long, sustained drives. They saw similar success wearing down the Giants' defense on Sunday.

"The Ravens took the drama out of Sunday's game early, as they often have during their season-long winning streak. On their opening drive, they rolled over the Giants' defense — the best they've faced since Pittsburgh's — for 82 yards in 13 plays, the last a 6-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Marquise 'Hollywood' Brown," The Baltimore Sun's Shaffer wrote. "Each drive seemed to amplify the differences in their respective abilities. One team looked like it was ready for the playoffs; the other looked like it needed the offseason, badly."

Offensive Coordinator Greg Roman couldn't have asked for a better result in the first half. All four of the Ravens' drives were at least 10 plays, gained 60 yards or more, and finished with a score.

Baltimore outgained New York 432 to 269, despite running just seven more plays, and held the ball for over 35 minutes.

"The game was over for the Giants in the first half," Sports Illustrated's Patricia Traina wrote. "Jackson and friends held the ball for 22:38 in the first half and scored on every possession in the half, jumping out to a 20-3 lead against a Giants defense that allowed 155 yards in the first half—four yards shy of their season-high of 159 against Arizona (159) in Week 14.

"The Giants' defense was so bad, in fact, that on the Ravens' first scoring drive, they averaged 6.3 yards per play as Jackson had all day to throw the ball, and the Giants run defense was non-existent."

The Ravens have been at their best with a strong rushing attack and the three-headed monster of Jackson, J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards helped the offense rush for over 100 yards for the 38th straight game. The run game averaged 6.2 yards per carry and didn't have any trouble picking up chunk yardage. All three ball carriers had runs of 20 or more yards.

To have the offense moving the ball on long drives is huge for the Ravens. Heading into the playoffs, it becomes even more important to keep dynamic offenses off the field.

Ravens Finding Continuity on the Offensive Line

The Ravens thrived with continuity on the offensive line last season and are finding it with some new faces.

"Remember those midseason losses in which the Ravens' running game turned pedestrian and Jackson could not find room to operate?" The Baltimore Sun's Childs Walker wrote. "The absences of [Ronnie] Stanley and the [Marshal] Yanda loomed over a wayward season.

"But the Ravens settled into a more stable, effective alignment in recent weeks and proved their gains were not schedule-driven illusions with an excellent showing against the Giants' bruising front four. [Orlando] Brown made the Pro Bowl again and is driving up his earning power with his stint at left tackle. Patrick Mekari has established himself as an above-average starting center. [Ben] Powers has become one of the great surprises on the roster, while the Ravens have learned to play to [D.J.] Fluker's strengths."

Walker gave credit to the job Offensive Line Coach Joe D'Alessandris has done. While the Ravens lost key starters from last season, young players like Brown, Powers, Mekari, and Bradley Bozeman have stepped up.

Importance of Mark Andrews' Return Can't Be Understated

Jackson has played some of his best football since coming off the Reserve/COVID-19 list, and so has one of his favorite targets.

Tight end Mark Andrews had another strong performance with six catches for a team-high 76 receiving yards and Platko believes the third-year tight end has returned to being a dominant receiving threat.

"Since Week 9, Andrews has five straight games with five or more receptions and 60+ receiving yards," Platko wrote. "The biggest change has been him and Lamar Jackson finally connecting on chunk plays downfield with consistency, which were few and far during the first several weeks of the year. Over the past four games, Andrews has long receptions of 31, 39, 27, and 25 yards, the latter of which he recorded against the Giants today."

"... Jackson and the running game have garnered most of the headlines, but ever so quietly Andrews has been picking up steam for some time now. He remains the Ravens most reliable source of receiving production. As he goes, so too does the passing attack."

Andrews could have had an even bigger game on Sunday, but two potential touchdowns came off his fingertips in the first half. He still gave the Giants defense plenty of trouble down the middle of the field, including an impressive 20-yard catch in traffic.

Andrews has quickly established himself as one of the league's top tight ends, and has been one of the focal points of the passing attack for the Ravens. In the last three games, he's totaled 220 yards and a touchdown.

"The theme of the Ravens right now is 'getting hot' and look no further than Mark Andrews for another guy that is doing just that," Russell Street Report's Cole Jackson wrote. "He did fail to bring in a TD pass that was an absolute bullet from Jackson, but he did bring in six others and he's offering that No. 1 pass-catcher type of mismatch the Ravens need."

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