When the Ravens fell to 6-5 and had dropped three straight, their season hung in the balance. Their margin for error was gone.
Since then, they haven't lost.
A four-game winning streak when they needed it most has the Ravens (10-5) one victory from clinching a playoff spot heading into Sunday's regular-season finale against the Cincinnati Bengals. The late-season surge is an indication of a resilient group, one that could be tough to eliminate should they make the playoffs.
The Ravens overcame a difficult November that featured season-ending injuries to Ronnie Stanley and Nick Boyle and a COVID-19 outbreak that left them severely shorthanded in a loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Unlike in 2019, when they went 14-2 and won 12 straight games, the Ravens' regular-season journey has been far more difficult in 2020.
"We understood the situation we were in, what we had been through the last few weeks before that," Head Coach John Harbaugh said. "We were trying to climb our way out of that situation. So, the guys did a good job of that. They understood how challenging it was. They tried to keep the focus on the football and keep it simple and play as well as we could. That seems like a long time ago right now, honestly. We're just trying to focus on what we have in front of us."
The Ravens faced a similar sense of urgency down the stretch in 2018 during Jackson's rookie season. They were 4-5 when Jackson took over as the starter and won six of their last seven games to make the playoffs.
The 2018 season was something Jackson said he thought about when he missed the Dec. 2 game against the Steelers on the Reserve/COVID-19 list. He knew it wasn't too late to turn around the season, and Jackson has looked rejuvenated after missing the Pittsburgh game.
His recent play has been stellar – four straight games with a quarterback rating over 100. When Jackson plays at such a high level, the Ravens are extremely difficult to beat. Since he became a starter, Baltimore is 17-1 in games in which Jackson's quarterback rating is above 100.0, and he has 12-1 record in December as a starter.
Harbaugh's teams also have a history of finishing the regular season strong. The Ravens have the NFL's best December record over the past three seasons (13-2), which meshes with Harbaugh's desire to have a team that improves each week.
"There's a lot that goes into it, probably," Harbaugh said. "It is the most important time of the year to win games, and there have been years when we weren't able to finish it out in the end. So, we're just focusing on that right now. We're not really looking back and trying to figure out the big picture. It's something that we emphasize a lot, but we just need to win this next game, and that's what we're focusing on right now."
The play of rookie running back J.K. Dobbins has been part of the Ravens' resurgence, as he and Gus Edwards have emerged as the lead backs in recent games. Dobbins had no previous NFL experience to draw from when the Ravens were going through tough times in November. But he saw a team that never lost confidence.
"I don't think we had any doubts – none of the guys in the locker room think like that," Dobbins said. "So, I think we knew what we had to do. We knew it was crunch time. We couldn't slack off, we couldn't mentally be unfocused, we couldn't do any of that. We knew it was time to lock in, and just go on a run, so we can have a chance, give ourselves a chance, and here we are. Now, we're playing a Cincinnati team that's … they're playing good ball, and they've got a lot of momentum, and so, we've still got to lock in."
Harbaugh is in his 13th season with the Ravens, and it's clear that his messages clearly resonate from season to season. In a year where there have been so many distractions for every team, Defensive Coordinator Wink Martindale said Harbaugh's leadership has helped players remain focused.
"He always makes it about them, not about him," Martindale said. "If a player knows that you're giving the best advice to him to help him … they're open to hear it, and they want to fix it. They not only want to fix it for themselves, they want to fix it for their teammates. So, I think that's just the culture here. We keep it real."
However, the Ravens aren't ready to pat themselves on the back, because the season isn't finished. A playoff berth has not been clinched. They can do that by winning in Cincinnati on Sunday, then moving on to the postseason. Harbaugh was asked if the adversity the Ravens have overcome this season would help make them stronger for whatever lies ahead.
"Well, we're about to find out," Harbaugh said. "I think we're always a mentally tough team. We have mentally tough guys. We have character guys, and it's just the way we're built. It's the way we operate around here day to day. So, it's really to be expected, but we'll find out to what degree based on how we play the next few weeks."