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Late for Work 12/31: Ravens Are Kings of the North; Takeaways From a Wild Finish


Takeaways from Ravens vs. Browns

Everyone's heart rates back to normal? Cause I'm pretty sure mine isn't.

Thankfully, this time all the stress ended with a victory. The Ravens concluded their regular season with a 26-24 win over the Cleveland Browns to bring them to 10-6 on the season. More importantly, it secured the AFC North championship, Baltimore's first division title since 2012, and we all remember how that season turned out.

Here are some takeaways from yesterday's heart-stopping game:

Defense uses a different formula to get the job done.

The Browns would have happily taken 376 yards and three touchdowns from quarterback Baker Mayfield before the game. Baltimore's defense entered the game as the No. 1 unit in scoring (17.5 points) and yards allowed per game (284.1). Mayfield's numbers alone put the Browns well over those averages.

As Russell Street Report’s John Darcey put it, "The defense seemed to bend more today than they have in the previous six weeks." While that's true, the group made up for it with takeaways, one of the few areas where the defense has struggled this year.

Baltimore forced three interceptions – two from cornerback Jimmy Smith and one from inside linebacker C.J. Mosley – to bring its forced turnover total to 17, which ranks just No. 22 in the NFL. It was a different formula for the defense on Sunday, but it still ended with a win.

The defense also got its finest performances from the two who hauled in the interceptions on Sunday. Mosley's takeaway came with the game, and season, on the line, and unlike in previous years, the defense delivered a game-changing play in the final moments of the game. It capped off a sensational game for the 26-year-old, who led the defense with six tackles, including one for a loss.

The Baltimore Sun’s Childs Walker wrote, "The game-clinching interception could not have found a more deserving pair of hands," while NBC Sports’ Peter King named Mosley as one of his defensive players of the week for making "the play of the season in the AFC North."

Smith, meanwhile, turned in his first two-interception game of his career, which led Pro Football Focus to write he "was quite easily the player of the game."

Run defense keeps Cleveland in check.

While the pass rush struggled to get to Mayfield (no sacks registered), the Ravens were able to limit one of Cleveland's other talented rookies, running back Nick Chubb, who finished with 24 yards on nine carries.

Yes, the Browns playing much of the game from behind affected how often Chubb would be given the ball, but he still only averaged 2.7 yards per attempt. PFF pointed to Cleveland's offensive line for Chubb's performance, as the group struggled to contain defensive tackles Brandon Williams and Michael Pierce. The duo combined for five tackles, with Pierce chipping in two behind the line of scrimmage.

"[Cleveland's] offensive line held up for the most part in pass protection, but it was clear they weren't going to be opening up many holes on the ground," PFF wrote. "The few times Cleveland did try to run, they got manhandled up front."

Kenneth Dixon leads another sensational rushing performance.

A lot of the credit for Baltimore's dynamic rushing attack, deservedly, has gone to the decision to name rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson the starter. He was his usual sensational self on the ground against Cleveland, rushing for 90 yards and two touchdowns (and even a third, but the refs …).

Jackson didn't lead Baltimore's rushing attack on Sunday though, as running back Kenneth Dixon turned in his best performance of the season with 117 yards on just 12 carries. It was the first time this season that Dixon led the team in rushing since Week 1, and the team finished with a whopping 296 yards on the ground.

As Baltimore Beatdown’s Kyle Barber put it, "Just feed this dude the rock. His jump-cut is lethal and his strength continues to gash teams."

To PFF, the key to Dixon's performance was his ability to make Browns defenders miss. Dixon had 50 rushing yards after contact by PFF's count.

After being placed on injured reserve during the first game of the season, it looked like could be yet another lost campaign for Dixon due to injury. Instead, he has come back with a force since being reactivated off IR, and has combined with Gus Edwards to form a devastating running back tandem.

"Dixon has been on a roll since returning to the field, and he was vital in Baltimore's win," Baltimore Beatdown’s Logan Levy wrote.

Red-zone woes continue for Ravens.

A consistent problem for the offense with Jackson under center has been producing touchdowns after reaching the red zone. The Ravens entered Sunday's contest with nine touchdowns on 22 red-[add]zone trips since Jackson became the starter, and that ratio actually got worse after a one-for-four performance.

For Walker, it's something the Ravens got away with on Sunday, but most likely will not in the postseason.

"Their running sets become less potent without space to operate, and Jackson's imprecision as a passer further limits their options," Walker wrote. "He'll need to become more efficient if the Ravens hope to string together playoff victories."

With the offense struggling to get in the end zone, the Ravens turned early and often to kicker Justin Tucker, which leads us to …

Never forget how valuable Justin Tucker is.

To WJZ's Mark Viviano, Cleveland's final drive of the game served as a reminder of how much of a "luxury" Tucker is for the Ravens.

Tucker put in another sensational performance, making all four of his field goal attempts and two extra points. In other words, accounting for 14 of the Ravens' 26 points.

On the other sideline, Cleveland's Greg Joseph made a 35-yard field goal attempt, but also missed from 46. That could have been in the back of the mind of Cleveland Head Coach Gregg Williams, and why he opted to go for it on fourth-and-10 with the game on the line instead of giving Joseph a chance to win it with a 56-yard attempt.

If the Ravens were in the same spot as the Browns, who else thinks Head Coach John Harbaugh gives Tucker a chance to win it?

First Showdown Between Lamar Jackson and Baker Mayfield Earns Rave Reviews

One of the prominent storylines entering Sunday's game was that it was a clash featuring the two most successful quarterbacks from this year's rookie class, and boy, did Jackson and Mayfield live up to the hype.

"I'm usually not impressed with rookies, but you saw two rookies out there today that showed that this is their league," veteran linebacker Terrell Suggs said. "It was impressive."

Their performances also left plenty of pundits excited for these two becoming a regular fixture in the NFL.

Jackson was once again superb on the ground, but it wasn't his best performance in the passing game, completing 14-of-24 passes for 179 yards. Still, the rookie displayed plenty of composure in a gutsy effort that proved to be enough to help Baltimore reach the postseason.

"When listing Jackson's strengths, mental toughness should be near the top of the list," Levy wrote. "The Ravens have faced adversity in each of their seven starts this season, yet he seemingly always finds a way to battle through. He continued to showcase that toughness on Sunday afternoon with several big-time throws and runs while under pressure."

It was a similar performance for Mayfield, with PFF writing, "It was an up-and-down day at the office for Baker Mayfield. He alternated gorgeous throws down the field with some easy misses."

Still, with his three touchdowns on Sunday, Mayfield passed Peyton Manning and Russell Wilson for most touchdowns thrown by a rookie (27). He is considered by many pundits to be the favorite to win the Offensive Rookie of the Year, and he is clearly leading Cleveland's young group, which showed a lot of tenacity on Sunday, prompting USA Today’s Jarrett Bell to write, "The Browns will be a handful next season. Cleveland fell behind early but never quit."

Though many members of the Ravens Flock will miss being able to put down two almost certain W's next to Cleveland's name when the schedule comes out in the spring, it looks like these matchups have the potential to be Baltimore's most fun games of the year, and it starts with the quarterbacks. As CBS Sports' Jason La Canfora put it, "Baker vs. Lamar twice a year is gonna be fun."

"As first-round draft picks, these two quarterbacks -- barring injury -- will be leading their teams for four more years at least," PressBox’s Bo Smolka wrote. "That's a huge win for this rivalry and fans of the AFC North."

Don't Sleep on the Tight Ends

While the play of Jackson and running back duo of Dixon and Edwards has been key to the rushing attack, there's no way it happens without sensational run blocking. It starts with the offensive line, with Barber writing, "From left tackle to right tackle, this unit drastically transformed into the best running unit in the NFL."

Though Barber is correct, there is another player group that has been important as well: the tight ends. The group has done an excellent job run blocking, with Levy referring to them as the unsung heroes of the operation.

"[Tight ends] Maxx Williams, Nick Boyle, Mark Andrews, and Hayden Hurst deserve a ton of credit for their involvement in Baltimore's running game," Levy wrote. "With several motions, they are constantly forced to make difficult blocks with not-so-great angles. Regardless, they continue to make critical blocks to open up lanes for their running backs."

It also should be noted that the group also made an impact in the passing game. Andrews and Hurst were the Ravens' leading receivers on Sunday, combining for 97 yards on six catches. Not bad for a pair of rookies in a must-win contest.

This sort of production from the two rookies is not surprising to Ebony Bird’s Chris Schisler. For Schisler, Andrews and Hurst have been a crucial component in Jackson's development as a passer.

"Every week the tight ends have receptions that make a big difference in the game," Schisler wrote. "That's huge when you have a rookie quarterback that rarely completes more than 20 passes in a game. The Ravens are getting exactly what they need to get out of Hurst and Andrews."

PFF Offensive and Defensive Ratings

·       Right tackle Orlando Brown Jr. received the highest mark for the offense from PFF with a score of 2.9. Right guard Marshal Yanda is right behind him with a 2.8, while Dixon scored a 1.2.

·       Wide receiver John Brown was given a -2.0, while Jackson registered a -1.5. Center Matt Skura tallied a -1.0.

·       Smith paced the defense with a 4.1, while Pierce recorded a 1.6. Safety Eric Weddle registered a 1.1.

·       Cornerback Marlon Humphrey was given a -3.0. Cornerback Brandon Carr accrued a -2.2, while outside linebacker Za'Darius Smith registered a -2.1.

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