Five thoughts on the Ravens' 28-10 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium:
If you thought the Ravens might not be at their best because they had nothing material to gain and Lamar Jackson and other key players were sitting out, this game was quite a surprise. Yes, important Ravens were missing and Robert Griffin III was starting an NFL game at quarterback for the first time in 155 weeks. But there was nothing halfhearted or B-team-ish about the Ravens' effort in a gritty win on a rainy evening. Starters such as Marlon Humphrey, Marcus Peters, Matthew Judon, Orlando Brown Jr., Bradley Bozeman and Chuck Clark played just about every snap, and they played hard, as if a trip to the playoffs was on the line instead of already locked up. "I wanted to play, man; I'm a baller," Judon said. The Steelers were outmatched, physically dominated on both sides of the ball. "It speaks volumes about our locker room," Griffin said, and who can argue? For the Ravens, this game was all about pride, competitiveness, finishing what you started and keeping a special thing going. That was more than enough motivation for a team that has become the NFL's best since it last lost in late September.
Early in the second quarter, the Ravens reached a goal they had admitted was important to them and set the NFL team record for rushing yards in a 16-game season. It confirmed that we've been watching something historic unfold in 2019, i.e., basically the best rushing attack ever. This season finale ended up being one of the finest examples of its power and fury. The Ravens were playing without two thousand-yard rushers, Jackson and Mark Ingram II. They also were playing without two offensive linemen who had been selected to the Pro Bowl, Marshal Yanda and Ronnie Stanley. That's a lot of talent missing from the equation, conceivably giving Pittsburgh's stout, aggressive defense a chance to take charge. But the Ravens still dominated, piling up 223 rushing yards to control the clock and squeeze the life out of the Steelers. Griffin had praise for the offensive line ("awesome to watch") and running back Gus Edwards ("sometimes I was just a fan"), who gained a career-high 130 yards on 21 carries, proving he could easily be a No. 1 back on just about any other team. As for that team rushing record, Ravens Head Coach John Harbaugh didn't mince words. "It feels real good," he said.
The Steelers' plan for Griffin was clear from the outset. They were going to try to take his head off. They hit him when he dropped back to pass. They hit him when he ran with the ball. They hit him after he handed off. It was almost as if they were insulted by his being there instead of Jackson and wanted to make him pay. "They were trying to punk me," Griffin said, which is code for seeing if he could take a beating and keep going. Pittsburgh recorded five quarterback hits in the first 25 minutes and finished with eight. Griffin couldn't believe some went unpunished by a flag. "I thought the rules had changed and you couldn't just unload on the quarterback after he hands the ball off," he said. Whatever, he survived the onslaught and couldn't hide the pride and satisfaction he derived from delivering a winning performance. The weather made passing tough and many plays ended with him sprawled on the ground, but he ran the offense like a savvy veteran and made plays with both his arm and legs. "Means everything," he said with the widest smile in the locker room.
The win meant the Ravens will ride a 12-game winning streak into the playoffs after finishing the regular season with a 14-2 record for the first time. Meanwhile, the Steelers finished 8-8 and out of the playoffs for a second straight year. Yes, the absence of Ben Roethlisberger, who was injured for most of the season, was obviously a key factor in their disappointing season. But on a day when Baltimore's backups dominated Pittsburgh's A team, it was clear the Ravens have left their chief rivals in the dust. For that matter, they've left the entire AFC North in the dust. Given what was being said about the division when the season began, I think a quick rundown is in order before we move onto the playoffs. The Ravens successfully defended the title they won a year ago, winning this year's division race by six games. (Seriously, six!) No other team in the division had a winning record. The Browns, deemed by many to be capable of unseating the Ravens, finished 6-10 and fired their head coach immediately after. The Cincinnati Bengals finished 2-14. Things can change in a hurry, but for now, the Ravens are lengths ahead of everyone.
Quick Hits: I can't imagine there's ever been another example of an NFL team making six Pro Bowl players inactive on game day, but that's what the Ravens did Sunday … The Ravens made the Steelers' rookie quarterback, Devlin "Duck" Hodges, look like a first-year player. He only completed nine of 25 pass attempts for 95 yards … Speaking of history, the Ravens are the first NFL team to average more than 200 yards rushing and 200 yards passing in a season … Griffin's yards-per-carry average Sunday (6.3) wasn't that far behind Jackson's average (6.9) in 2019 … Successfully executing a fake punt from their own 11 in the fourth quarter was a pretty good illustration of how badly the Ravens wanted to win, even with nothing material to gain.