Five thoughts on the Ravens' 38-3 win over the Cincinnati Bengals Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium:
Making the AFC playoffs was considered the least the Ravens would accomplish in 2020 when the regular season began. But that was before consistency issues, key injuries and a COVID-19 outbreak pushed them to the brink of not qualifying at all. You just never know how a season will go, especially one taking place during a pandemic. That's what made the Ravens' fifth straight win so satisfying. It not only clinched that playoff spot but also burnished the Ravens' credentials as one of the hottest teams in the field. They won in what has become a familiar fashion, with their dominant rushing game leading the way and their aggressive defense yielding little. The Bengals had exhibited some late-season feistiness in winning two straight games, but the Ravens never allowed a potential upset to gain traction, building a 17-0 lead before they allowed a first down. It's a testament to their focus and the level they're playing at, which is, in a word, high. They had a 6-5 record and a COVID-decimated roster when December began, but now, they're heading to the playoffs with confidence, good health and a crystal-clear identity, a dangerous combination of qualities.
When the Ravens battered the Bengals at M&T Bank Stadium in October, Lamar Jackson rushed just twice for three yards and J.K. Dobbins had just one carry. Although the Ravens won easily, their offense was in a crisis of sorts. Fast forward to Sunday, and my, how things have changed. Jackson churned out 97 yards on the ground with his improvised scrambles and designed runs, and Dobbins, now clearly the team's No. 1 back, had his best NFL rushing day with 160 yards on 13 carries. The two wins over the Bengals tell an important story about the 2020 offense. Earlier in the season, Jackson and his unit were trying too hard to make certain things happen, i.e., ramp up the passing game, keep three backs happy, etc. Now, the offense is just emphasizing what it does best. Jackson needed to run more, as evidenced by the fact that Sunday he became the first NFL quarterback to have multiple 1,000-yard rushing seasons. And Dobbins was a star-in-waiting who needed more touches. It's not a coincidence that their "A" games have led to the offense experiencing far more success.
The Ravens' defense didn't literally get a day off, but with the offense completely dominating possession, it was on the field for just 16 plays in the first half and 40 overall. The workload surely was welcomed at the end of what has been a grueling regular season for Defensive Coordinator Wink Martindale's unit. It has enjoyed some good days in 2020 but also a run of crucial injuries and several frustrating outings. The good news is the injury picture is clearing up at just the right time, with Marcus Peters returning Sunday (and picking off a pass), Calais Campbell rounding into shape and Ravens Head Coach John Harbaugh suggesting Yannick Ngakoue and Jimmy Smith might return for the playoffs after sitting out Sunday. As it is, the interior is in far better shape than a month ago (the Bengals' rushing game produced little when the game was competitive), which will be critical in the playoffs. And as tough as the injuries were, they gave cornerback Anthony Averett and rookie lineman Justin Madubuike a chance to play more, and both have emerged as important puzzle pieces, bolstering the depth of what is, at this point, no question, a playoff-caliber defense.
It seems like a lifetime ago, but Jackson was under scrutiny when the 2020 season began. Although he was the reigning league MVP, the Ravens' 2019 season had ended with a playoff upset, dropping Jackson's record as a playoff starter to 0-2. There was a lot of chatter about him having to wait until January to be able to prove anything new to the football world. That wasn't fair for a player entering just his third season in the NFL, but regardless, Jackson seemed to struggle early in the season under the weight of whatever he thought was expected of him after his MVP season. No longer. His last five games have been as impressive as anything he did in 2019, culminating with his devastating blend of scrambles, dashes and passes Sunday. Now it's time for another trip to the playoffs and a chance to address that chatter of months ago. There's no telling what will happen, but what's clear is Jackson could not be in a better place going in. Week after week, he is making play after play with supreme confidence, letting his unique talent shine. If it carries into the postseason, things could get very interesting around here.
Short takes: I know the Bengals' rushing defense isn't the stoutest, but the fact that the Ravens surpassed 400 yards on the ground (404) is nothing if not evidence of something special going on … It also further indicates that the Ravens' unsung offensive line has gone from being a question mark to a key asset … On Miles Boykin's 43-yard touchdown catch, Mark Andrews deserved an assist for drawing three defenders to him, leaving Boykin with just one guy to beat … We briefly experienced a pre-pandemic norm when the few fans in attendance lustily booed the Bengals after they lamely settled for a field goal when down by 17 points just before halftime … The game was so lopsided that it didn't matter punter Sam Koch was on the Reserve/COVID-19 list and missed a game for the first time in his 15-year career. But you know the Ravens are crossing their fingers Koch is back for the playoffs.