Late for Work 12/30: Are the Ravens Best Built for the Underdog Role?

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QB Lamar Jackson

Are the Ravens Best Built for the Underdog Role?

Statistically speaking, the Ravens are the NFL's best as heavy (double-digit) favorites, but are they best built as an underdog?

That's what ESPN’s Mike Greenberg said when discussing how far the Ravens could go in the playoffs.

"I just feel like in this incarnation of the Ravens these last 15 or 20 years, this role suits them better," Greenberg said. "I don't think they're the team that is meant to come in at 14-2 and everybody is scared of them. I think they're meant to be the team that has to fight its way out of a corner that people don't see coming."

It's cliche to say, but history shows there's some truth to it. Both times the Ravens won the Super Bowl, they entered as wild-card teams.

When Baltimore captured its first Super Bowl in the 2000 season, it went through a five-game stretch without a touchdown. When the Ravens won the 2012 Super Bowl they overcame a three-game losing streak late in the season before a Week 16 win over the New York Giants.

There are no comparisons to playing through a global pandemic, but the Ravens have overcome adversity to start playing their best football at the right time.

"The Ravens had a seemingly easy 2020 schedule and returned mostly the same roster," Ebony Bird's Chris Schisler wrote. "The magic was still alive, right?

"That was all too easy to believe, especially after a 6-2 start to the year. Magical runs always end. Sometimes they end in a Super Bowl victory like in 2012 or the 2000 season. Last year's magic started too early. It feels like a sort of 2020 magic may be starting to heat up and come into fruition for Baltimore. If my hypothesis is correct, and this team really did grow up this season, the way they probably should have a year ago, they may win it all."

Depending on how Week 17 plays out, the Ravens could land anywhere from the No. 5 to No. 7 seed if they make the playoffs. Pundits have labeled them as the team no one wants to face, but that would certainly make them an underdog in the wild-card round.

Along with Greenberg, ESPN's Dominique Foxworth and Dan Graziano also expressed confidence in the Ravens moving forward.

"I think I believe in Lamar Jackson more than any other offense out there," Foxworth said. "I also think this defense, if they can get healthy in the secondary, they can go back to their form they were at before and still be a problem."

"I think it's possible that the crazy win over the Browns activated them," Graziano said. "They look like their old, terrifying selves. … They bullied people, they won big when they could. They're feeling it right now. If I'm the Chiefs I'm not scared of anybody, but I'm looking at Baltimore going, 'Don't get too hot.'"

ESPN's Jeff Saturday isn't convinced yet, however.

"They are probably the most difficult team to prepare for, but who have they beat?" Saturday said on "Get Up". "They've been in the playoffs the past four or five weeks? No, because they haven't played any playoff teams. You have to beat playoff teams in the playoffs. This offense is really good when they have a lead and they've shown that.

"But at the end of the day, if they get behind, this is not a team that can come back and win. That's going to be the issue. Whether you're chasing the Bills, Chiefs, possibly even the Steelers, if those teams get up on you, it takes Baltimore completely out of their game."

It should be noted that the Ravens did beat a team currently slated for the playoffs (the Browns), and they mounted a fourth-quarter comeback to do it.

Power Rankings: Red Hot Ravens Continue to Rise

The Ravens are peaking at the right time as they make a playoff push, and they continue to rise up the power rankings.

Baltimore moved up at least one spot or stayed the same in five of the six publications we looked at this week.

"The Ravens have been a different team during the four-game winning streak that revitalized their season," NFL.com's Dan Hanzus wrote. "In that stretch, Baltimore became the fourth team in the Super Bowl era to score 140-plus points and gain 900-plus rushing yards in a four-game span. They've beaten their opponents in that period by an average of 15.5 points. They look pretty much exactly like the 14-2 berserker team that rampaged its way to the AFC's No. 1 seed a year ago. This is not good news for the rest of the AFC."

The Ravens have played like one of the league's best down the final stretch of the season, and that's been reflected in the power rankings.

Baltimore made its biggest jump up five spots from No. 10 to No. 5 in Sports Illustrated's rankings. The Ravens also moved up one spot in ESPN and CBS Sports' rankings.

"Their midseason slump was the result of bad luck in the red zone and a rash of injuries; the answers were always there for the Ravens offense, even if it doesn't return to 2019 levels," SI's Gary Gramling wrote. "Considering the defense is, if healthy, top five, this is the wild-card team no one wants to play in January."

"They need one more victory to be in the playoffs," CBS Sports' Peter Pete Prisco wrote. "They will be dangerous come playoff time as they continue to improve."

The Ravens weren't able to capture a third straight AFC North title, but some pundits believe they're in a better position than the Steelers. NFL.com and USA Today each had Baltimore ahead of Pittsburgh in their rankings.

Table inside Article
Source Ranking Last Week's Ranking Comments
ESPN No. 6 No. 7 N/A
NFL.com No. 5 No. 5 “The Ravens have been a different team during the four-game winning streak that revitalized their season. … They look pretty much exactly like the 14-2 berserker team that rampaged its way to the AFC's No. 1 seed a year ago. This is not good news for the rest of the AFC."
Bleacher Report No. 8 No. 7 “Now, after peeling off four straight victories, the Ravens are a win over the hapless Bengals away from returning to the playoffs—and arguably the hottest team in the AFC”
USA Today No. 6 No. 6 “How hot are they? Baltimore can become [the] first team in a quarter century to lead [the] league in point differential in consecutive seasons.”
Sports Illustrated No. 5 No. 10 “[T]he answers were always there for the Ravens offense, even if it doesn’t return to 2019 levels. Considering the defense is, if healthy, top five, this is the wild-card team no one wants to play in January.”
CBS Sports No. 8 No. 9 “They need one more victory to be in the playoffs. They will be dangerous come playoff time as they continue to improve.”

Even in Limited Snaps, Calais Campbell Is Crucial to the Pass Rush

The pass rush was at its best against the Giants and Calais Campbell was a big reason why.

Despite playing just 20 snaps Russell Street Report's Dev Panchwagh dove into the film and explained how important the veteran defense end was on Sunday.

"If you had any reservations about the impact that Campbell has for the defense and the pass rush specifically, his return against the Giants should tell you everything," Panchwagh wrote. "… However, in those 20 snaps, I charted that the defense recorded three sacks and several incompletions. Campbell himself came close to registering half a sack but ended up freeing linebacker Chris Board instead for the full sack."

Panchwagh noted that Campbell was used primarily on passing downs, and the Ravens saw results when he was on the field. Campbell helped force three straight sacks on Daniel Jones in the fourth quarter.

"Campbell's pass-rush versatility was one of the prime benefits the Ravens valued when they acquired him for a fifth-round pick," Panchwagh wrote. "That versatility was on full display on Sunday. In a first-quarter red zone sub package in which Wink rushed three (flanked by Yannick Ngakoue and Matthew Judon), Calais lined up over the center, on the nose. He also lined up at the three technique and we already know he can line up as a five technique as well."

It likely won't be a career year for Campbell as he's battled through injuries and COVID-19 this season, but his performance on Sunday was a reminder of how valuable he is to the defense.

"After an extended dry spell, the Ravens' pass rush is heating up," Penn Live's Aaron Kasinitz wrote. "Defensive coordinator Don 'Wink' Martindale is sending a variety of players streaming toward quarterbacks, making it possible for eight different players to have at least one sack over the past two games.

"That pressure has helped Baltimore weather injuries to cornerbacks Marcus Peters and Jimmy Smith, and it might frighten Cincinnati's offensive coaches. When they blew out the Bengals, 27-3, in October, the Ravens saw a record five different members of their secondary record a sack."

How the Ravens Can Help Lamar Jackson This Offseason

Bleacher Report's Alex Ballentine looked at one thing each team can do this offseason to help their quarterback, and he believes the Ravens need to add a difference-maker at wide receiver.

"As long as Greg Roman is crafting an offense tailored to Jackson's unique gifts as a runner and he's supported by a strong stable of backs, the Ravens offense is going to be dangerous," Ballentine wrote. "If they can acquire a true threat at receiver to pair with Marquise 'Hollywood' Brown, it will take their potential to another level.

"Chris Godwin, Allen Robinson and Kenny Golladay are all names who could be on the free-agent market next offseason. Any one of them would be a huge addition to get the most out of Jackson's abilities."

Jackson has been among the league's most efficient quarterbacks through the air this season, and he's played some of his best football since coming off of the Reserve/COVID-19 list. But the Ravens are averaging just 174.5 passing yards per game, and there's an argument to be made that they can improve in that area.

"A proven No. 1 wide receiver for Jackson is the missing piece of the Ravens' high-scoring offense," ESPN's Jamison Hensley added. "Last offseason, the Cardinals traded for DeAndre Hopkins for quarterback Kyler Murray and the Bills acquired Stefon Diggs for QB Josh Allen. Baltimore has to get just as aggressive if it wants Jackson to take the next step as a passer."

OverTheCap.com currently projects the Ravens to have $25 million in cap space this offseason. That's enough to make a run at a loaded free-agent class.

If General Manager Eric DeCosta and the front office decide to target the position in the draft, they could also have their pick among a talented group. Pro Football Focus' Austin Gayle mocked Minnesota wide receiver Rashod Bateman to the Ravens in the first round.

"If Bateman, Rondale Moore or even Kadarius Toney is still on the board late in the first round, Baltimore might have to prioritize need and sprint the card in," Gayle wrote.

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