Close games are nerve-racking, but they can also be beneficial.
That's the lesson the Ravens are taking from Sunday's 20-17 victory over the San Francisco 49ers. It was the first time Baltimore didn't win by double digits since Oct. 20. In their previous three games, the Ravens had won by an average of 36.3 points.
But the 49ers (10-2) were having none of that. They pushed the Ravens (10-2) to a place they hadn't been in weeks – the brink of possible defeat. Baltimore had to make crucial plays during the final five minutes, knowing the outcome of the game was hanging in the balance.
That's playoff-type football. That's playoff-type pressure. That's the kind of atmosphere the Ravens hope to be dealing with in January and February. Winning Sunday's hard-fought contest made the Ravens feel better prepared for what lies ahead.
"These games are needed," cornerback Jimmy Smith said. "When you're trying to go on a run and get to the playoffs, you never expect a blowout, and you need to be in those tight games to see how players respond at some point. Today was pivotal, and I think a lot of guys proved that we can step up when the time calls for it."
The Ravens never led by more than seven points and needed contributions from many players to pull out the win. Defensive lineman Chris Wormley had a huge play to end San Francisco's final drive, deflecting a pass by quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo that allowed Baltimore to take possession and begin its drive toward the game-winning field goal.
Baltimore's defense will face other key situations as the season unfolds, and Sunday's game left several areas for players and coaches to focus on. San Francisco had 174 yards rushing and was particularly effective with outside runs. For the first time this season, the Ravens' defense surrendered an opening-drive touchdown, and Baltimore's tackling in the wet conditions was not up to its usual standards.
However, the Ravens kept making crucial plays that win games, like safety Chuck Clark's strip sack of Garoppolo that led to Baltimore's first touchdown. Tight end Hayden Hurst converted one fourth down and Lamar Jackson snuck up the middle to move the chains on the Ravens' game-winning drive.
The Ravens haven't lost in two months and even when they don't dominate, they don't care to remember what losing feels like.
"We're fighting for who's supreme in the league right now, but I think today showed us a lot about our team – things we need to fix going forward," Smith said. "It's good for us to see what teams are going to try to do against us."
Wormley got a kick out of seeing the media surrounding his locker following the game. Usually, he can shower and dress in relative peace before he heads out the door. Sunday, he was being peppered with questions from many directions.
"I'm getting a little recognition from you guys now, and when 'Harbs' [Head Coach John Harbaugh] was breaking it down after the game," Wormley said. "It's a good feeling, but we have a lot more work to do. We just beat a really good team and we have to play a really good team in Buffalo next week."
The significance of being 10-2 for the first time in team history and being the No. 1 seed in the AFC isn't lost on the Ravens. The players don't want to waste the golden opportunity to host AFC playoff games at M&T Bank Stadium.
"Usually at this point in the season, we are clawing our way to get a playoff game," Wormley said. "Trying to win the division or to get that wild-card spot. Now we are in the position that we just keep doing what we are doing, we can play for that first-round bye and home field advantage throughout the playoffs. That would be incredible for us. It is a different feel, especially since the last two seasons it has been our defense that has carried the team along. Now, with Lamar and the offense, they are putting up so many points, it's nice to see them have success and obviously our defense is having success as well."
Jackson has a go-for-the-jugular mentality, wanting every drive to end with a touchdown, regardless of the score. He accomplished that goal against the Los Angeles Rams, leading six touchdown drives on the Ravens' first six possessions. However, the 49ers had much more success containing the Ravens' offense, forcing Jackson to leave the field frustrated at times, especially after his third-quarter fumble.
Though he was angry after that mistake, Jackson regrouped quickly and never lost focus of his primary goal – winning the game. Having an MVP-caliber season, Jackson often makes people forget he is only 22 years old. A game like Sunday's will only continue to fast-forward his growth.
"To win a game like that is really valuable," Harbaugh said. "We expect – as Lamar said – we expect every game to be just like that. And sometimes they're not, but the ones that count, and the ones that are, you have to be ready for. Our guys approached the week of work just that way, and they were ready for it."