Five thoughts on the Ravens' 24-21 win over the Cincinnati Bengals Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium:
Lamar Jackson's debut as the Ravens' starting quarterback couldn't have gone much better. He handled the signals and formations, the mechanics of the job, as if he'd done it for years. He ran and passed for big gains, made plays with his feet and legs, didn't look the least bit overmatched. If you didn't know he was a 21-year-old rookie, you never would have guessed. "I thought he played spectacular," Ravens Head Coach John Harbaugh said. I agree. (Who doesn't?) But while his 117 rushing yards (easily a franchise record for a quarterback) and solid passing stats (13 for 19 for 150 yards) reinforce that he performed well, an element you can't quantify was his most impressive contribution. After dominating the first half, the Ravens made some mistakes and suddenly found themselves eight points behind in the third quarter. It looked and felt ominous, but Jackson didn't blink. He led the offense on a long touchdown drive that reversed the momentum, then led another scoring drive that produced the winning points. The defense helped, but Jackson brought the team back. His career bottom line so far: One start, one come-from-behind win. Oh, and one season saved. Not bad for a rookie.
It was nice to hear Ravens cornerback Marlon Humphrey admit he looked at the scoreboard in the final minutes, when the defense was trying to protect a narrow lead, and thought back to last year. I know I sure did. I mean, it was a virtual replay of the situation the Ravens were in last December, when they only needed to make one stop, on a fourth-and-12 play, to beat the Bengals and clinch a playoff spot. You know how that worked out. (Hint: Not well.) The memory has haunted the Ravens, and watching the Bengals turn a handful of third downs into firsts late in Sunday's game, I know I wasn't alone in fretting about the possibility of a reprise. Someone needed to save the defense and make a play, and to the relief of everyone on the Baltimore sideline, Humphrey stepped up, knocking a reception out of the hands of the Bengals' Cody Core on a fourth-and-3 play. "It's a lot more fun to get the stop," Harbaugh said in what might be the understatement of the year. Humphrey's teammate, Eric Weddle, purposely stopped short of anointing him an elite cornerback last week. This was the kind of play an elite cornerback makes.
Although the Ravens had struggled all season to get their rushing game untracked, they'd noticed their backs tended to pick up more yards per carry when Jackson was in the game. Sure enough, that happened Sunday. Aside from Jackson's team-high 117 rushing yards, the running backs also were effective on the ground, totaling 135 yards on 25 carries while the defenders focused on Jackson. But if the uptick in their production wasn't a surprise, the identity of the No. 1 back certainly was. Alex Collins? Nope. Buck Allen? Nope. Ty Montgomery? Nope. Gus Edwards, an undrafted rookie free agent, dominated the load, rushing for 115 yards on 17 carries – a 6.8 yards-per-carry performance that nearly doubled the team's figure (3.6) through the first nine games. Edwards appeared to get a shot because he runs hard and straight ahead, as opposed to juking at the line, and it made for a nice change-of-pace from Jackson. Oh, and he didn't fumble, a point not to be underestimated. It's too soon to know if this means he'll be the starter, but Collins' days as the de facto No. 1 certainly appear over. At the very least, I'd expect a shared arrangement from now on.
It was no secret the Ravens' season was on the line Sunday. A loss would have completed a season sweep for the Bengals and reduced Baltimore's playoff chances to rooting for miracles. Now things look a lot different. Coupled with the Indianapolis Colts' victory over the Tennessee Titans Sunday, the Ravens' win means the race for the AFC's No. 6 playoff seed consists of five teams with 5-5 records. Yup, there's a five-way tie at 5-5, which sounds like something Dr. Seuss would write. The Bengals, Titans, Colts and Dolphins are the other contenders, and if I had to pick one to worry the most about, I'd go with the Colts, who have won four straight games and have an excellent quarterback, Andrew Luck. The Ravens have the best defense and an interesting (to say the least) situation unfolding at quarterback, but their schedule looks tougher than the Colts' schedule. Of course, given how the whole scene undergoes drastic changes every week, who knows what lies ahead?
Short takes: It's a good thing the Ravens didn't lose faith in Justin Tucker after his crucial miss against the New Orleans Saints. I'm kidding, of course. The Ravens' faith in their All-Pro kicker hasn't wavered, and this game proves why. On a day when the teams finished three points apart, Tucker nailed a 56-yarder and Cincinnati's Randy Bullock missed a 52-yarder ... A classic case of over-officiating cut short a promising Baltimore drive in the second quarter. On a third down play, tight end Mark Andrews was whistled for interference on the other side of the field from where Jackson completed a pass for a first down. The contact didn't warrant a flag, but either way, it had nothing to do with the play. Given how many flags fly these days, it might be nice if the league encouraged its officials NOT to throw those that have no bearing on a play … The Ravens won despite losing the turnover battle (1-0). They still haven't grabbed an interception since Oct. 14 … Jackson's ability to make plays is best indicated by the fact that the Ravens had possession of the ball for more than 38 minutes. He kept finding ways to keep the offense on the field.