With Lamar Jackson, the Ravens Are Contenders
Tuesday night's game against the Dallas Cowboys was as close to a "must-win" game as it gets. Entering the week at 6-5, Baltimore needed a victory to stay in contention for a wild-card berth.
What pundits left M&T Bank Stadium with was a belief that the Ravens can reach the postseason, and that their contention rides on Lamar Jackson.
"[Jackson] was back now, and maybe so are the Ravens," The Baltimore Sun's Jonas Shaffer wrote. "They'd entered Tuesday night ninth in the AFC's seven-team playoff picture. They left with a win over Dallas that they needed to stay in the wild-card hunt in December … that suggested they could very much contend in January."
"[T]he Ravens flexed their muscles often enough to take advantage of the Cowboys' mistakes and deficiencies and polish off a comfortable win," Penn Live's Aaron Kasinitz wrote. "It keeps them positioned to compete for a place in the playoffs, where Jackson's talent and the defense's potential and a smashmouth running game open the possibility of title contention."
One of the biggest takeaways coming off a loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers last week was that the Ravens could compete with the NFL's best even when they're not at full strength. Fast forward one week later and the return of Jackson showed just how dangerous Baltimore can be.
Jackson finished 12-of-17 for 107 yards and two touchdowns passing, but the identity of the ground game was reminiscent of the Ravens' victories last season.
"After battering the Cowboys for four quarters, the Ravens had 294 yards and two touchdowns on the ground with a look-twice yards-per-carry average of 7.9 yards," NFL.com's Grant Gordon wrote. "[Gus] Edwards had a game-high 101 yards on only seven carries, while [J.K.] Dobbins had a touchdown and 71 yards on 11 carries. A season ago, the Ravens ran for more yards in a season than any team ever had. At least on Tuesday, the 2020 Ravens looked every bit like the purple-and-black rushing and wrecking crew they were a season ago."
At 7-5, the Ravens sit just two spots outside of the playoff picture, behind the Las Vegas Raiders. ESPN's Football Power Index gives Baltimore a 68 percent chance to make the playoffs.
"This is a team that has underachieved in terms of expectations in the win-loss column," Fox Sports' Marcellus Wiley said. "But I think they're trying to reconfigure a formula for success in the postseason. … This is a team that's hitting its stride and is going to hit its spot right now."
All Eyes Head to Next Monday Night
The Ravens kept their playoff hopes alive with a win, but perhaps one of their toughest remaining regular-season tests comes against the Cleveland Browns. All of the attention is already turning to next Monday night.
"Baltimore likely needs to go undefeated over the final five games to make the playoffs for the third straight year," Sports Illustrated's Todd Karpovich wrote. "The Ravens passed their first test against a struggling Cowboys team. Baltimore will face its toughest test Monday night against the surging Browns, who now have their sights on a potential AFC North title."
With major postseason implications for both teams, NFL.com's Gregg Rosenthal believes it's one of the most important regular-season matchups left.
"This game means more to the Ravens' playoff hopes, but cosmically, it seems far more important to the Browns," Rosenthal wrote. "This is the first December game between these teams with serious playoff implications for both squads since 2002. The post-expansion Browns haven't been in a game that mattered this much in more than a decade, much less against the franchise that left town and broke the city's collective heart."
A win would bring the Ravens closer to a wild-card spot, with a favorable schedule to follow against the Jacksonville Jaguars, New York Giants and Cincinnati Bengals. The Browns (9-3) are in the driver's seat for a wild-card berth, but as Karpovich mentioned, still have a shot at an AFC North title.
"Baltimore's convincing win over the Cowboys on Tuesday night steadied the Ravens' COVID-ravaged season, but Baker Mayfield and friends have a chance to put a serious dent into Baltimore's playoff chances while keeping alive Cleveland's shot at winning the AFC North," Rosenthal wrote. "After the Ravens opened the season with a 38-6 win over the Browns, it would be awfully satisfying for the first overall pick of the 2018 NFL Draft to out-play the last pick of the 2018 first round in a game that matters. If not, this Browns team will still feel like the little brother in this brutal division."
Offensive Line Has Its Best Game Yet
Tuesday night was the seventh different starting offensive line combination for the Ravens this season, but it might have been their best performance yet.
"They've been criticized often as a unit this season, sometimes even labeled as the biggest culprits in a season during which the Ravens have struggled," Russell Street Report's Tony Lombardi wrote. "But against the Cowboys, collectively, they dictated the flow of the game. The Ravens offensive front, the guys in the trenches, did a very nice job of controlling the contest, paving the way to a massive 7.9 yards per carry and 294 yards rushing in total."
"An offensive line with just one player, left guard Bradley Bozeman, playing the position he started the season at had its best game of the season," The Athletic's Jeff Zrebiec added. "The Ravens dominated on the ground, and Dallas didn't register a single hit on Jackson."
The Cowboys' front seven didn't have an answer for the Ravens in the trenches. Jackson, Dobbins, and Edwards each rushed for over 70 yards as the run game looked reminiscent of the dominant force that wore down teams last season.
As Zrebiec mentioned, it wasn't just the run game. The offensive line also kept Jackson clean in the pocket throughout the entire game.
Injuries and a COVID-19 outbreak forced the Ravens to shuffle around the offensive line, but we could finally start to see a more consistent rotation with Orlando Brown Jr. and Bradley Bozeman on the left side, Patrick Mekari at center, Ben Powers at right guard and a rotation of Tyre Phillips and D.J. Fluker at right tackle.
How Much of a Concern Is the Pass Rush?
Wink Martindale's defense held the Cowboys to just 17 points, but pundits believe the lack of pass rush is a concerning trend.
"[T]hey can't be thrilled with surrendering 29 first downs to an offense that had averaged 14.7 points per game since losing starting quarterback Dak Prescott," The Baltimore Sun's Child's Walker wrote. "The Ravens rolled up six sacks in a Week 6 win over the Philadelphia Eagles. Since then, they've totaled six in six games. Sacks aren't everything, but that's a startling lack of production for a defense that added pass-rush specialist Yannick Ngakoue."
Without their top pass rusher Matthew Judon, who remains on the Reserve/COVID-19 list, the Ravens finished with just one sack and five quarterback hits against an offensive line that wasn't full strength. The first sack didn't come until the beginning of the fourth quarter.
"The Ravens will surely need to generate more pass rush pressure than they did in this game," Press Box's Bo Smolka wrote. "The Browns are a confident group now with four straight wins, and quarterback Baker Mayfield has performed at a level lately to back up his usual swagger, with four touchdowns in a win against the Tennessee Titans Dec. 6."
It's a trend that needs to improve for the Ravens to make a playoff push, but are the concerns a bit overstated? According to NFL Next Gen Stats, Dalton has one of the fastest releases out of the pocket this season (2.58). Ben Roethlisberger, who Baltimore faced one week prior, has the fastest (2.29).
"Dallas had allowed at least three sacks in three consecutive games and were without their two starting tackles," Zrebiec wrote. "Dalton got the ball out quickly for most of the night, but you'd feel much better about the Ravens defense if they got to the quarterback more."
- "[T]he Ravens hadn't drawn a single pass interference call all year until tight end Luke Willson was mugged by Cowboys safety Xavier Woods at midfield in the second quarter," Zrebiec wrote. "It was blatant, although the Cowboys felt the ball was uncatchable. They may have had a case. Jackson air-mailed the throw to Willson."
- "Three of the Ravens' offensive linemen and fullback Patrick Ricard earned grades above 70.0 on PFF's first grading review of the game," Pro Football Focus' Austin Gayle wrote.
- "As it stands now, none of those games are necessarily or mathematically must-win games. But with one more loss, and potentially even without a loss, the Ravens may have to play four-straight 'must-win' games to end their wild 2020 season," NBC Sports' Andrew Gillis wrote.