Brian Baldinger: Ravens Are the Team to Beat If They Get in the Playoffs
With the Ravens playing as well as any team in the league during their four-game winning streak, they've been hailed as the wild-card team no one wants to play in the postseason.
NFL Network analyst Brian Baldinger took it a step further.
"I think the rest of the league should be on notice that the Ravens — I don't care what happened in the postseason last year — I think they're the team to beat right now if they get in," Baldinger said on the “Baldy’s Breakdowns” podcast.
Currently the sixth seed, the Ravens (10-5) will get in if they beat the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday (they also could get in with a loss but would need help).
Baldinger marveled at the Ravens' ability to run the ball during their recent resurgence. He was especially impressed with how well they ran against a good New York Giants defense this past Sunday.
"They might legitimately be able to run, like really run, old-school run, to a title," Baldinger said. "What they did to the Giants just showed you because the Giants are an accomplished run defense. But when [the Ravens] run for 250 yards against them, and the Giants have no idea how to stop it, it just goes to show you what [Offensive Coordinator] Greg Roman and Lamar Jackson, and [Bradley] Bozeman and [Orlando Brown Jr.] and those guys up front, are doing.
"The Giants put all their big horses up front — Leonard Williams, Dexter Lawrence, the whole group — it didn't make any difference. Their misdirection, their power, and the way that they're doing it right now, if you're a linebacker or an outside linebacker, you don't know where the ball's going. And then they hit you right in the mouth."
To illustrate just how dominant the Ravens' rushing attack has been during their winning streak, Baldinger's co-host, CBS Sports' Jason La Canfora, pointed out that not even the Ravens team that set the single-season rushing record last season had a four-game stretch running the ball as productive as this one.
Over their past four games, the Ravens ran for 933 yards and 10 touchdowns on 146 carries, a whopping 6.4 yards per attempt, including 55 rushing first downs.
As strong as the ground game is, however, it's not the only reason Baldinger believes the Ravens are the team to beat.
"We know that the kicking game is as good as there is in the NFL," Baldinger said. "Defensively, they play with a bunch of defensive backs … it doesn't make a difference, [Defensive Coordinator] Wink [Martindale] can blitz with the best of them. … They get a lead, forget it."
Key Factors in Lamar Jackson's Resurgence
It's no surprise that the Ravens' running game, and the offense as a whole, returning to 2019 form has coincided with Jackson's return to his 2019 NFL MVP form.
Since being sidelined by COVID-19, Jackson is the only quarterback in the league to post a passer rating better than 100 in four straight games. He completed 70 percent of his passes during that span and threw eight touchdown passes to two interceptions. Jackson also ran for 333 yards and four touchdowns.
PressBox’s Bo Smolka identified several key factors in Jackson's resurgence. Here are some excerpts:
A more dynamic, creative running game
"Veteran Mark Ingram has been a healthy scratch the past two weeks and played just one snap in the game before that, as the Ravens have focused on rookie J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards as the leaders of the ground game," Smolka wrote. "Their success has made Jackson more effective as a runner and passer.
"The Ravens lately have showed more two-back looks with Dobbins and Edwards in the game together, and at times they have lined up Dobbins as a slot receiver and brought him in motion on a jet sweep, giving him a full head of steam once he gets the ball. His balance and vision both come into play as he stretches the field horizontally and turns upfield. Edwards, who ran for a team-best 85 yards against the Giants, has also showed more speed to the edge, and the threat of those backs getting outside is sometimes all Jackson needs."
"It's hard to quantify, but Jackson is at his best when he is spontaneous, when he uses his otherworldly athleticism to improvise, and he appears to be doing that more than earlier in the season," Smolka wrote. "In the past month, Jackson has shown greater willingness to tuck the ball and run when the pocket breaks down or receivers can't gain separation."
More consistent throws and catches
"[Marquise] Brown, who has hurt the Ravens with drops this season, has been more consistent of late, and so has Miles Boykin, whose mistakes on route-running earlier in the season led to some bad incompletions," Smolka wrote. "To be sure, some of Jackson's throws — including some completions — have been off target, and players such as Brown, Mark Andrews and Willie Snead deserve credit for adjustments to make contested catches. But Jackson has been more consistent now than earlier in the season."
Gus Edwards Has Earned a New Contract
Edwards' performance this season should earn him a more lucrative contract, NFL.com analyst Maurice Jones-Drew said.
Edwards, who signed with the Ravens as an undrafted free agent in 2018, signed a one-year, exclusive-rights tender this offseason.
"Baltimore has some decisions to make at the position with Edwards slated to become a restricted free agent this offseason," Jones-Drew wrote. "I'd love to see him back in Baltimore's backfield — Edwards deserves an extension from the team, and I ultimately think he'll get one — but there's always the chance another organization gives him an offer that the Ravens don't match."
A punishing, downhill runner, Edwards leads Ravens running backs in carries (132) and rushing yards (663) and his six rushing touchdowns are second to Dobbins, who has seven.
He has averaged at least 5.0 yards per carry in all three seasons with the Ravens, and this year he has become more productive in the passing game, posting career-highs of eight catches and 119 yards.
One Impressive Streak Will Come to an End in Cincinnati
Something has to give in Sunday's Ravens-Bengals game at Cincinnati.
When entering their home finale with a losing record, the Bengals (4-10-1) have won 12 straight and 17 of their past 18. The Ravens, who are favored by 12 points, are 41-0 as a double-digit favorite, according to ESPN’s Jamison Hensley.
Another streak on the line — and one that bodes well for Baltimore —is Jackson's winning streak in December. He has won his past 11 starts in December, producing a league-high total QBR (78.5) and scoring the most total touchdowns (31), according to Hensley.
Jackson's lone loss in 13 December starts occurred in 2018, when the Ravens fell in Kansas City, 27-24, in overtime. It took a miraculous scrambling fourth-and-long completion from Mahomes for the Chiefs to win that game.
Ravens Reportedly Expected to Sign Free-Agent Safety Jayron Kearse
The Ravens are expected to sign free-agent safety Jayron Kearse to the practice squad, according to multiple reports.
Kearse, 26, started seven games for the Detroit Lions this season before being released earlier this week for reportedly violating team rules. The nephew of former Titans star defensive end Jevon Kearse, Jayron was a seventh-round pick out of Clemson by the Minnesota Vikings.
"A player like Kearse would not only provide a layer of insurance behind Chuck] Clark and [DeShon] Elliott but also might afford Defensive Coordinator Don ‘Wink’ Martindale more options to mix and match personnel in the secondary,” [Penn Live’s Aaron Kasinitz wrote. "In the past, Clark has played in a linebacker-like role at times when the Ravens have a capable No. 3 safety to plug in behind him. More talent in the defensive backfield typically unlocks parts of the playbook and helps a team cover opposing tight ends and running backs."
- NFL Network analytics expert Cynthia Frelund gives the Ravens a 6.9 percent chance to make the Super Bowl. Those are the ninth-best odds overall and fourth-best in the AFC, trailing the Chiefs (No. 1 overall, 45.9 percent), Buffalo Bills (No. 4, 18.2 percent) and Pittsburgh Steelers (No. 5, 14.6 percent).