The Baltimore Ravens are back in the playoffs.
The Ravens clinched their first playoff berth since 2014 and their first AFC North Division championship since 2012 this past Sunday with a 26-24 nail-biting victory over a much-improved Cleveland Browns squad.
In typical Ravens fashion, it wasn’t easy even though they jumped out to a 20-7 lead at halftime on the back of two Lamar Jackson first half touchdown runs.
Jackson would finish the day with 90 yards rushing and the two aforementioned touchdowns. Kenneth Dixon chipped in 117 yards on 12 carries and Gus Edwards rounded out the three-headed monster rushing attack with 76 yards of his own. The 296 rushing yards on the day was a season high for Baltimore.
The offense stalled in the second half, tallying just 139 yards and six points. The defense found themselves in a familiar spot, needing a stop on an opponent’s last-minute drive to seal a Ravens victory. This time, C.J. Mosley and company delivered:
The game-clinching interception was the Ravens third pick on the day for Browns rookie sensation quarterback Baker Mayfield. Mayfield carved up the Ravens defense for 376 yards passing and three touchdowns in what was arguably the Ravens secondary’s worst day of the season.
The win has set up a first-round AFC Divisional playoff matchup with the Los Angeles Chargers at 1:05pm this Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium.
Here’s what to watch for as the two teams will meet for the second time in three weeks.
1) What is the impact of this being the second meeting in three weeks?
One of the number one things that you see on social media and hear on the airwaves of 105.7 The FAN in Baltimore is that you cannot simulate the speed of Jackson. Until you see this speed on the field you truly do not know how freaky fast the Ravens rookie is.
For the first time in the Jackson era, the Ravens will do battle with a team that has seen the revamped offense once before. There are concerns regarding adjustments that the Chargers can make now that they know what to expect from the Ravens offense.
It was just two weeks ago that the Ravens totaled their lowest rushing total in a game since Jackson took over the starting job when they picked up 159 yards in Carson, California against the Chargers.
Further concerning is that the Ravens totaled just 38 rushing yards in the second half of that contest. The Ravens offense struggled throughout the second half with three straight three-and-outs late after extending their lead to 16-10 with 5:36 remaining in the third quarter.
The Chargers were driving to take the lead when the Ravens defense stepped up with a forced fumble caused by Patrick Onwuasor. Tavon Young scooped up the ball and ran it back for the game-sealing touchdown. While the Chargers appear to have made adjustments to slow the Ravens down in the second half, I was interested to see if this was a trend or an exception when it come to teams stopping the Ravens offense as the game goes along.
The first half vs second half numbers have been relatively similar overall for the Ravens under Jackson.
|Category||1st Half||2nd Half|
|Offensive Points Scored||75||73|
The Chargers had success shutting down the Ravens running game in the second half of the last meeting. Let’s hope that success is short-lived and the Ravens can crank up the running game. If they can’t, it could be a long day for Jackson and company.
2) Can the defense bounce back?
The Ravens defense has struggled following up on some of their biggest performances of the season.
Remember the 11-sack shutout of the Titans in week Six where the defense held them to 106 total yards? That was followed by three straight losses in which they had just two sacks and surrendered an average of 335 yards-per-game as well as 27.7 points-per-game.
This past Sunday, the defense was flying high after their dominant performance against the Chargers two weeks ago where they held the NFL’s 11th-best offense to 198 total yards, 175 yards below their season average. The only touchdown they allowed was on a short field after a Dixon fumble gifted the Chargers the ball at the Ravens 17-yard line.
Then Sunday happened. Mayfield and the Browns offense racked up 426 yards of total offense and scored the most points the Ravens have given up since the 27-24 overtime loss against the Chiefs. It marked the second time all year the defense gave up 24+ points in a contest at home.
Receivers were open all over the field with five Browns pass catchers tallying 45+ yards receiving. The group was led by Jarvis Landry who snagged a 48-yard touchdown pass to quickly cut the Ravens lead to 20-14 on the first drive of the third quarter.
Safe to say he was pretty open. Old friend Breshad Perriman got in on the fun for the Browns too, opening up the scoring for Cleveland with a 28-yard touchdown catch.
Again, the coverage was non-existent. The secondary owned up in the postgame taking blame for the performance. “The secondary, we didn’t play our best ballgame, especially me,” Marlon Humphrey said.
The Ravens need to hope that Humphrey and the secondary can get back on track Sunday against a Chargers team that they dominated two weeks ago. Philip Rivers and the Chargers offense struggled throughout in their 23-9 win over the Broncos. Rivers was 14-for-24 for 176 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions.
Rivers rarely has three bad games in a row and will be welcoming back his starting tight end Hunter Henry who has missed the entire season to this point with a knee injury. Henry joins an offense that boasts Keenan Allen, Mike Williams, and Melvin Gordon among other weapons.
This game will be won for the Ravens on the strength of their defense. This unit cannot afford another below average performance Sunday or the Ravens return to the playoffs will be short-lived.
3) Will the Ravens show any new wrinkles on offense?
I love that the Ravens are rushing for 229.5 yards per game over the past seven games.
I love that the Ravens defense sits at number one in yards-per-game allowed, fifth in passing yards-per-game allowed, fourth in rushing yards-per-game allowed, and second in points-per-game allowed for the 2018 season.
I love that the Ravens are 6-1 over their last seven games and are surging going into the playoffs hosting their first playoff game since the 2012 Super Bowl season.
Running games and defense have often been two pivotal parts of putting together Super Bowl caliber teams and it is hard to imagine that any team is the league boasts a better one-two punch in that department than the Ravens.
But the Chargers proved two weeks ago that they have what it takes defensively to slow down the Ravens vaunted rushing attack. Yes the Ravens won the game. Yes the Ravens still rushed for 159 yards. Yes Jackson hit Mark Andrews on a big time 68-yard touchdown in that contest.
With all that being said, LA was driving to win the game when the Ravens defense made a huge play to put it away. Despite 296 rushing yards last week, the Browns were driving to win the game before the Ravens defense made a huge play to put it away. There’s nothing wrong with relying on your defense to make huge plays to put games away especially when your defense is as good as this one.
But wouldn’t it be nice to not have to rely on the defense? Wouldn’t it be nice to flash some sort of semblance of a deep passing threat/quick strike offense? Wouldn’t that strengthen an already beastly rushing attack if defenses had to at least acknowledge that the Ravens would be willing to take a deep shot?
The Chargers are a west coast team traveling cross country to the east coast for a 1:05pm start time. This is often discussed as one of the most difficult things to do in the NFL and the scheduling gods smiled upon the Ravens with that start time. So why not take a deep shot on the first play of the game?
The Ravens have been reluctant to do so and trust me, I get why. I have often been critical of Jackson’s passing ability and if the Ravens don’t think he’s capable of hitting a deep throw than so be it. But what is the harm in trying?
If a deep pass is overthrown, it falls incomplete and it’s 2nd and 10. If it is intercepted, it serves as a punt. But what if it is completed for 60 yards? Even better, what if it goes for six? The Chargers would be shell-shocked, the Bank would be rocking, and the Ravens would have the Chargers scrambling for answers.
Not likely going to happen, but wishful thinking right?
Jake McDonnell: Chargers 21 Ravens 20
Nolan McGraw: Ravens 24 Chargers 23
Jay Stavros: Ravens 28 Chargers 24
Ian Schultz: Chargers 24 Ravens 19
The second half of the Chargers game concerns me. Gus Bradley is a damn good defensive football coach. Maybe he figured something out about the Ravens offense. Maybe he didn’t. But if he did and the game rests on the shoulders of the defense again, I expect Rivers to deliver this time.