Five thoughts on the Ravens' 30-17 win over the Oakland Raiders Sunday at Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum:
Nobody Saw This Performance Coming**
Feeling a little dizzy? You're probably not alone. These drastic changes in the Ravens' prospects are enough to give anyone the spins. Things looked bleak after they got blown out in London and laid an egg at home in back-to-back games. But literally from the first play of this game, a 52-yard pass completion, the Ravens looked nothing like the team that absorbed those defeats. Their offense, a unit under intense scrutiny, was fast, physical and confident. Their defense produced a touchdown and kept things under control. There was a ton at stake in this matchup of .500 teams: statistically, a 3-2 team has a far better shot at making the playoffs than a 2-3 team. Not only did the Ravens emerge with the better odds, they also regained a share of first place in the AFC North when the Pittsburgh Steelers lost at home. Raise your hand if you saw all that coming … no, didn't think so.
Flacco Responded to Critics Saying His Best Football Is Behind Him*
If you know Joe Flacco, you know he wasn't thinking about responding to the criticism that has swirled around him this year. He was just trying to play well and win, which he did. But make no mistake, this performance DOES serve as a response to anyone starting to believe Flacco's best football is behind him. He brought his "A" game. He threw a pair of deep completions straight out of his "Greatest Hits" collection. He moved the chains at key moments, tossing third-down completions into narrow openings. He put an end to his 10-game streak of throwing an interception. Yes, it helped that his maligned offensive line dominated, and that his ground game produced; the Ravens ran on 39 of their 65 snaps, always a good sign. But this offensive performance started with Flacco's command and leadership. Go back and read what he said during the week. *We need to start fast. We need to play with more confidence. I think his teammates listened.
Baltimore's Defense Blew up Raiders' Plan on Offense**
It was evident what the Raiders wanted to do on offense without starting quarterback Derek Carr. They wanted to pound into dust a Baltimore run defense that had yielded 339 yards in the past two games without centerpiece Brandon Williams, who was still out. But two things went wrong with the Raiders' plan. First, although they did run decently, averaging 4.3 yards on 25 carries, they tailed off as the game progressed. More importantly, they fell so far behind so quickly – by 18 points after 18 minutes – that there was no way they were going to run their way to victory. That meant it was up to EJ Manuel, their backup quarterback, to make up the deficit. Manuel played well as Oakland cut the lead to seven, but Ravens Defensive Coordinator Dean Pees dialed up some new blitzes that pressured Manuel and kept him from completing the rally. All in all, it was a good day for the defense. Marlon Humphrey stepped in against some tough receivers and didn't budge an inch. Jimmy Smith ran a fumble in for a touchdown. The pass rush returned. A performance to build on, for sure.
Ravens' Tough Offensive Line Was Spectacular**
Going in, many analysts saw a mismatch in Khalil Mack and the Raiders' dangerous edge rushers taking on the Ravens' patchwork offensive line. But the offensive line was outstanding. Flacco was never sacked and had all the time he needed. Tackles Ronnie Stanley and Austin Howard were the keys to a dogged group effort that included tight ends and running backs chipping in with blocks on Mack and the Raiders' other rushers. Then, when the Ravens wanted to control the clock late, the entire line just took over and "took the heart out of the Raiders," safety Eric Weddle said. Asked to pick one play that summed up the overall offensive effort, I'm sure many fans would point to one of the long passes from Flacco to Mike Wallace. But how about the third-and-5 the Ravens converted *with a running play *in the first half? Buck Allen took a pitch and appeared to be stopped short, but with second effort and a violent push from his line, he picked up the first down and the Ravens finished the drive with a touchdown. Talk about toughness and confidence.
Oakland Win Could Be Big Turning Point in Ravens' Playoff Push
Some real candor from Flacco after the game: "Every win is big, but I think this one is a little more significant because of what it does to the mentality and confidence of the team, and the other way, what not winning would have done." Yes, it was a big one. As I wrote before the Pittsburgh game, I thought going in that the Ravens would be in good shape to contend for a playoff spot if they could get through their first five games – a tough stretch of opponents and travel – with a 3-2 record. The loss to Pittsburgh seemed to dim the chances of that happening, but Sunday's win enabled them to reach 3-2 after all. And now the Ravens enter a stretch of their schedule dominated by opponents that are playoff longshots. Anything can happen, as evidenced by the up-and-down-and-up the Ravens have already experienced. But they're in a good place, and if they go on to contend for a playoff spot, you can mark down this win in Oakland as the turning point.