Through 15 games, the Ravens' defense is ranked No. 1 in the NFL, a deep, talented unit that could be peaking at the perfect time.
However, to finish at the top of your class, you can't fail the final exam. The Ravens know their stellar defensive season will lose luster if they don't beat the Cleveland Browns on Sunday, and don't make the playoffs.
The Ravens have allowed the fewest yards, the fewest overall points, the fewest fourth-quarter points, and the lowest completion percentage in the NFL. Last weekend Baltimore's defense dominated the Los Angeles Chargers, one of the league's best teams.
But the past two seasons, the Ravens have allowed last-minute touchdowns in must-win December games that have eliminated them from the playoffs. The last team with the league's No. 1-ranked defense to miss the playoffs was the 2012 Pittsburgh Steelers, and the Ravens don't want to join that list.
Baltimore's defensive players have talked openly this season about finishing as the league's top-ranked defense and completing the unfinished business of reaching the postseason. Nobody on the Ravens' defense is shying away from Sunday's pressure-cooker situation. In fact, the players relish it.
"This is what it's about," cornerback Brandon Carr said. "This is what we prepare for throughout training camp, offseason – for this moment, to have the opportunity to close out our season the way we want to, control our own destiny. We've been playing playoff football for about a month-and-a-half now, so that's nothing new. We're just excited for an opportunity to come out here and to finish our season the right way."
Under first-year Defensive Coordinator Wink Martindale, the Ravens have been blunt about chasing greatness on defense. Before the season, Martindale listed the team's defensive goals on a blackboard. During the bye, they revisited those goals and set new ones to reach where they wanted to be. And during the final defensive team meeting every week, each player states his individual goal for that game.
Martindale loves goals. He won't always reveal what they are, but being good on defense isn't good enough for the Ravens. Excellence is the expectation.
Before Saturday's game, for example, cornerback Tavon Young said he wanted to score. Sure enough, Young scooped up a fumble and took it 62 yards to the end zone in Los Angeles.
"When you write your goals down, and you see them and you believe them, they happen," Martindale said. "We have some high expectations in that room. The goals that we wrote down during that bye week – you can go down by the grease board and see guys looking at them. When I see them doing that, [I know] we're in the right place. The standard is high here, to play defense with this organization, for this city. We all know that, and we all accept that responsibility."
Don't expect the Ravens' defense to change its stripes Sunday against the Browns' offense, led by rookie quarterback Baker Mayfield, rookie running back Nick Chubb (972 yards), wide receiver Jarvis Landry (874 yards) and tight end David Njoku (577 yards). The Ravens will blitz in a variety of ways and show Mayfield a ton of looks, hoping to frustrate him like they did Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers.
Rivers has far more experience than Mayfield, but Mayfield has more mobility. Quarterbacks who escape the pocket and extend plays have given the Ravens problems in the past. In the only game the Ravens have lost since their bye week, Kansas Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes saved the game for Kansas City by escaping the pocket and completing a sensational pass on fourth down late in the fourth quarter.
When the Ravens lost to the Browns in Week 5, Mayfield made a gritty 39-yard completion on third-and-8 to set up the game-winning field goal, even though Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs was pushing a blocker into Mayfield's face as he threw.
Mayfield is aggressive. The Ravens defense is aggressive. Mayfield has swag. The Ravens defense has swag. Both teams have won five of their last six games. Ravens cornerback Jimmy Smith expects a tough challenge.
"Obviously, Baker Mayfield has made a lot of plays, scrambling plays," Smith said. "They have a good receiving corps, good running game as well. Our hands are going to be full. Plus, it's their championship game, so they might pull out all the stops for this one."
Expect the Ravens' defense to pull out the stops as well. So many defensive players are performing at a high level, like inside linebacker Patrick Onwuasor, who was named AFC Defensive Player of the Week after his forced fumble against the Chargers led to cornerback Young's scoop-and-score touchdown.
Onwuasor and Young are not household names around the NFL. Baltimore's top-ranked defense is sending just two players to the Pro Bowl: inside linebacker C.J. Mosley and safety Eric Weddle. However, the Ravens have two elite run-stoppers in defensive tackles Michael Pierce and Brandon Williams. They have four excellent corners – Marlon Humphrey, Smith, Carr, and Young. They have two experienced read-and-react safeties in Weddle and Tony Jefferson. They have three pass rushers with at least seven sacks – Suggs and Matthew Judon with seven apiece, and Za'Darius Smith who leads the team with 8 ½.
Opponents looking to attack weaknesses in the Ravens' defense have trouble finding them. Head Coach John Harbaugh disputes the notion that Baltimore lacks star players on defense.
"I think we play team defense, have a lot of really good players," Harbaugh said. "I probably don't buy into that particular 'star' thing; that's in the eye of the beholder, so to speak. I think we have a lot of stars, but they're playing as a team. They're playing as a unit, and that's really what makes for a good unit, a great defense or anything in football, because football is a team sport."
The Ravens haven't finished with the NFL's top-ranked defense since 2006. They haven't won the AFC North since 2012. They haven't made the playoffs since 2014.
Plenty of goals can be accomplished by the Ravens if their defense turns in another stellar performance Sunday. They have the type of defense that can carry a team far in the playoffs. But first, the Ravens must reach the playoffs. They are looking to handle that Sunday.
"Yeah, I've been on some confident defenses here," Smith said. "But I feel like this is our best one."