Three things to watch for as Ravens welcome Chargers in the return of playoff football to Baltimore

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.

Jackson was 14-for-24 through the air for 179 yards with fellow rookies Mark Andrews and Hayden Hurst combining for 96 yards on six catches to pace the Ravens passing attack.

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.

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Pressure will be on the Ravens coaching staff to keep the offense rolling along against a team that has already seen the revamped attack. Image Credit: USA Today

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.

NFL: Los Angeles Chargers Training Camp

Gus Bradley and his defense did a nice job on the Ravens rushing attack in the second half of their last meeting. Image Credit: USA Today

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
Total Plays 253 267
Total Yards 1408 1179
Offensive Points Scored 75 73
TOP 114:53 135:39

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.

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Marlon Humphrey and the secondary will look to bounce back from a dreadful performance. Image Credit: Getty Images

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.

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Lamar Jackson has been a catalyst with his legs in willing the Ravens to the playoffs. Image Credit: Baltimore Sun

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.

Baltimore Ravens v Cleveland Browns

John Brown has been the forgotten man since Lamar Jackson has taken over the QB position. Why not take a deep shot to him early? Image Credit: USA Today

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?

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The Chargers wouldn’t know what hit them if the Ravens attempt a play action pass on play one Sunday. Image Credit: Pro Football Weekly

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?

Predictions

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.

Broadcast information:

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Podcast Episode 32: The Ravens are AFC North champions

Welcome to Episode 32 of the Charm City Bird Watch Podcast with site owner Jake McDonnell, editor Nolan McGraw, and author Ian Schultz.

At the top of the show, we revisit the Ravens 26-24 win over the Cleveland Browns (4:40). As always, we tell you Who’s Trending (26:15) and go over some things to watch for in the Ravens upcoming Wild Card game against the Chargers (38:15).

In addition to the Ravens game, we gave a quick break down of the other three wild card games and some predictions for who we think will win (48:07). Be on the lookout for some more in depth articles on charmcitybirdwatch.com throughout the playoffs where all of our authors will give their official predictions as each round arrives.

Before getting into the weekly numbers segment (1:05:40) we had to take a moment to appreciate the Steelers meltdown following their elimination from playoff contention (57:40). Jake, Nolan, and Ian all give their opinion on the Antonio Brown situation and his heated exchange with Ben Roethlisberger.

You can find the Charm City Bird Watch Podcast on SoundCloud, iTunes, and Google Play. Please leave us a review on iTunes, we love to hear your feedback and may read it on a future episode. Happy New Year and thanks for listening!

Image credit: Kathy Kmonicek / Associated Press

Three takeaways following the Ravens playoff-clinching 26-24 win over the Browns

With Sunday’s win, the Ravens clinched a playoff berth for the first time in three years and their first AFC North championship in six years.

#1: Ravens ride rushing attack and rack up season’s highest total

No one needed a reminder that the Ravens were going to stick with what’s been working with the Lamar Jackson offense, and that was the running game. Needing a win to host a home playoff game, the Ravens ran the football 47 times and finished with 296 yards. That marks the Ravens’ highest rushing total this season and the third-best single-game rushing total in franchise history, according to Patrick Gleason.

Kenneth Dixon led the way on the ground, finishing with a career-high 117 yards on 12 carries. It’s the first time in his career finishing with over 100 yards rushing in a game. Jackson racked up 90 yards and two touchdowns on 20 carries. Jackson’s rushing scores came from 25 and eight yards out. If it had not been for a bogus holding call on Maxx Williams, Jackson would have added a 33-yard touchdown that would have put the Ravens ahead 27-14. Instead, the Ravens had to settle for a field goal.

Here’s another look at Williams’ “holding” penalty that negated a Ravens touchdown:

Gus Edwards followed Jackson with 76 yards on 12 carries, and Ty Montgomery totaled 13 yards on two carries. All elements of the Ravens’ running attack had success against Cleveland’s 28th-ranked run defense, as Baltimore picked up 16-of-24 first downs on the ground.

#2: Oft-criticized defenders finally come up with turnovers

The Ravens defense has been dominant all season. Baltimore exits of week 17 with the NFL’s top-ranked defense, finishing first in yards given up (4,687), fourth in run defense (1,327 yards given up) and fifth in pass defense (3,360 yards given up).

Even with all of their success, defensive turnovers have eluded the Ravens until recently. The Ravens defense tied for 22nd this season with 17 takeaways. Two veteran players on this defensive unit – linebacker C.J. Mosley and cornerback Jimmy Smith – went into week 17 without any turnovers on their stat line.

Smith drew harsh criticism from fans early in the season when he served a four-game suspension for violating the NFL’s personal conduct policy. Upon returning to the field in week 5, it took more than a month for Smith to return to his form due to recovering from a torn Achilles suffered in December 2017. With Smith struggling, Marlon Humphrey stepped up and emerged as the Ravens’ top cornerback, but week 17 told a different story.

While Humphrey struggled in coverage on Sunday, Smith picked off Baker Mayfield twice. Smith’s first interception occurred during Cleveland’s first possession when Mayfield attempted a pass to Antonio Callaway on 2nd-and-5. The latter came with just over four minutes left in the half off a deflection by Tavon Young on a pass intended for Rashard Higgins. The officials initially ruled the pass incomplete, but Smith got up and immediately signaled to head coach John Harbaugh to challenge the play.

After a booth review, the call was overturned. The Ravens opened the scoring with a field goal following Smith’s first interception, but after Smith’s second interception the Ravens gave the ball up when Jackson fumbled on the goal line. Obviously the Ravens need to do a better job of translating turnovers into points, but Smith chose a great time to put together his best performance of 2018.

In regards to Mosley, fans and media alike have pointed to pass coverage being the fifth-year linebacker’s biggest flaw. Defending the middle of the field, specifically tight ends, has plagued the Ravens defense in recent seasons. In a contract year, Mosley leads the defense with 105 total tackles, but he also failed to record a single turnover until yesterday.

As the Pittsburgh Steelers defeated the Cincinnati Bengals 16-13 with about two minutes to play in Baltimore, the Ravens, holding a two-point lead, went three-and-out on offense and punted the ball to the Browns with 1:49 left in regulation. The Ravens now had to stop the Browns from scoring on this drive to punch their ticket to the postseason. You didn’t need to remind anyone of what happened in the final minutes of last year’s New Years Eve defeat to Cincinnati. Everyone was already biting their nails thinking about it.

Mayfield and the Browns reached the Ravens’ 39-yard line following two completions of 16 yards or more to Jarvis Landry and former Ravens first-round pick Breshad Perriman. After forcing three straight incompletions, it was fourth down and the pressure was on the Ravens defense.

Last year on 4th-and-12 Baltimore had their hearts broken when Andy Dalton and Tyler Boyd connected for a 49-yard touchdown with less than a minute left on the clock. This time on fourth down, Mayfield tried to throw a pass as Humphrey and a number of Ravens defenders crept into the backfield. The ball, intended for Duke Johnson, was tipped and intercepted by Mosley with 1:01 left on the clock.

With Cleveland only having one timeout left, the Ravens simply kneeled down twice to put the game away for good.

“All of people on social media saying I can’t cover, I won’t say too much about them, people are going to talk,” Mosley said at the podium after the game. “They get it now, we’re in there.”


#3: The Flock finally comes through

On a personal level, perhaps the best part about Sunday’s playoff-clinching win was seeing how full and loud M&T Bank Stadium was. A number of factors have led to a concerning amount of empty seats at NFL football games, and the Ravens are one of many teams around the league facing this issue. Two weeks after huge patches of empty seats were visible against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Ravens fans filled the stadium and were loud throughout the game.

The announced attendance is about 1,000 less than M&T Bank Stadium’s capacity. From what I saw sitting at the game, there were still some empty seats visible, but not nearly the amount that it’s been lately. I would say that the stadium was about 92% full. Considering the implications of the game and from how the Ravens have struggled to get people in seats lately, the franchise should be very happy with the turnout.

Because of the in-home experience of watching NFL football, the weather, the knee, technology taking over people’s lives, safety concerns, the cost of parking/transportation/food/drinks, bad officiating, fantasy football, and other factors, attendance for the Ravens and the NFL will continue to be an uphill battle. Not making the playoffs three years in a row certainly hurt the Ravens too, but now they’re back in the race with a weapon in Jackson that the Ravens have not had in years.

Without question, M&T Bank Stadium should be full and raucous next Sunday at 1:05 pm for the Ravens Wild Card matchup with the Los Angeles Chargers, who the Ravens of course defeated less than two weeks ago in Carson California. I would imagine that a lot of fans in attendance for yesterday’s fun will definitely be looking into purchasing tickets, as well as a number of fans who couldn’t make it to the game yesterday. Last week, several Ravens players expressed their desire for a full stadium on social media. I think the players thrive on the crowd, and they’ll definitely need The Flock to bring the noise again next Sunday against the Chargers.

Image Credit: Baltimore Sun