Three things to watch for as the Ravens look to clinch a playoff spot against the Browns

The Baltimore Ravens find themselves in a familiar position this Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium at 4:25 pm as they enter a week 17 home divisional contest with a chance to clinch a playoff spot.

This year is a bit different from last season’s matchup with the Bengals as the Ravens will be able to win their first AFC North title since the 2012 Super Bowl season if they defeat the upstart 7-7-1 Cleveland Browns.

Once again, this past week the Ravens defense was absolutely dominant on Saturday night in Carson, CA holding the NFL’s 10th-ranked offense to just 198 total yards. But a familiar scene was playing out as the Ravens were clinging to a 16-10 lead with 2:54 left in the game and the Chargers driving when Patrick “Peanut” Onwuasor and Tavon Young combined for the biggest play of the night for the defense:

This touchdown made the score 22-10 and Marlon Humphrey put a stop to the final Los Angeles drive of the night with an interception in the end zone. Lamar Jackson and the Ravens offense rode their ball control formula in the first half  (19:54- 7:56) but were only able to stake the Ravens to a 6-3 lead at the half.

The Chargers took the lead four plays into the second half as Kenneth Dixon fumbled on the first play of Baltimore’s opening drive and Melvin Gordon punched it in to give the Chargers a 10-6 lead. But the Ravens rookie offensive talents stepped up just two plays into the next Ravens drive as Jackson hit fellow rookie tight end Mark Andrews with arguably his prettiest pass of the season:

The Ravens didn’t look back from there despite the Chargers threatening. With some help on Sunday from the New Orleans Saints, who registered a 31-28 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Ravens will win their fifth division title in franchise history with a victory on Sunday over the Browns.

Here’s what to watch for ahead of Sunday’s tilt.

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Patrick Onwuasor won the AFC Defensive Player of the Week with his week 16 performance. Image Credit: Getty Images

1) Defensive dominance must continue

Since the bye week the Ravens are 5-1 and despite what you’re being told on a consistent basis about the offense’s involvement in this surge to the playoffs, the Ravens will go as far as the defense takes them.

Over the last six weeks, the Ravens defense has put up absurd numbers. 17 points-per-game allowed. 252.6 yards-per-game allowed. They have held five of their last six opponents to under 256 total yards. The only outlier in the last six games of dominance was the 442 yards allowed against the Kansas City Chiefs. This game included an overtime period as well.

The Ravens are forcing turnovers at a rate that we hadn’t seen prior to the bye week. They have seven turnovers in the last six weeks after coming up with just seven turnovers in the nine weeks before the bye. The defense also has three touchdowns since the bye week as well. Additionally, the defense has 15 sacks over the last six weeks.

Baltimore Ravens v Green Bay Packers

The Defense needs to continue to come up huge this Sunday in a win and in scenario. Image Credit: USA Today

Here are their overall rankings right now in the NFL on the defensive side of the ball:

Yards-per-game allowed: First (284.1)

Pass yards-per-game allowed: Fourth (198.9)

Rushing yards-per-game allowed: Third (85.1)

Points-per-game allowed: First (17.5)

Sacks: Tied for Sixth (43.0)

3rd Down Defense: Third (34.0%)

If it seems that the Ravens have ran into a top ten offensive unit in nearly every game since the bye week, that’s because they have in four of the six contests. They will miss a top ten offense this week as Baker Mayfield’s Browns come to town but the Ravens will need to be at their best defensively to win the division crown and end their three-year playoff drought.

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Baker Mayfield took home AFC Offensive Player of the Week honors for his Week 16 performance. Image Credit: AP

2) About Baker Mayfield and that Browns offense

Other than the Ravens, it can be argued that the Cleveland Browns are the hottest team in the NFL. And no one has been hotter league wide the past six weeks than Mayfield.

The number one overall pick out of Oklahoma has been rumbling since Hue Jackson was let go prior to to the Browns 37-21 loss to the Chiefs in week nine. Since week 10 Mayfield and the Browns are 5-1 just like the Ravens. Mayfield has thrown for 263.5 yards-per-game with 14 touchdowns and four interceptions. He is completing 71.5% of his passes over the past six weeks.

Mayfield is on an incredible roll over the past six weeks and has gained steam in the Offensive Rookie of the Year conversation.  Prior to Mayfield’s hot streak, the award appeared to destined to go to Giants rookie running back Saquon Barkley. As of right now the only winner of this award should be Mayfield, who with a win in Baltimore on Sunday, would give the Browns just their fourth winning record since 1990.

Oftentimes with a rookie quarterback, the formula would be to blitz the hell out of him but with Mayfield, that may not be the best way to shut him down. Consider this from last Sunday:

Yeah maybe the Ravens shouldn’t blitz the hell out of him. Mayfield has some decent weapons at his disposal but definitely not the likes of Melvin Gordon and Keenan Allen whom the Ravens were able to shut down last Saturday.

Wideout Jarvis Landry leads the Browns with 76 catches for 874 yards and three touchdowns. Tight end David Njoku is second on the club with 53 catches for 577 yards and four touch wins. Antonio Callaway, Rashard Higgins, and former Raven Breshad Perriman round out the pass-catching threats for the Browns.

Rookie running back Nick Chubb paces the Browns rushing attack with 972 yards and eight touchdowns on the season despite not taking the starting job until week seven. He will be looking to build on back-to-back 100-yard performances against the Bengals and the Broncos.

The defense will once again have their hands full with an offense that has been performing much better as of late.

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Lamar Jackson has proven to be the right man for the job in Baltimore. But the Ravens might need more from him to clinch the division Sunday. Image Credit: Getty Images

3) What do the Ravens get from their offense?

The Ravens are 5-1 in their six games with Jackson under center as the starting quarterback.

Jackson has been the catalyst in the running game that we all expected him to be and has sprinkled in just enough in the passing game to help the Ravens turn their season around and find themselves back in the playoff hunt. Jackson is given the lionshare of the credit for the Ravens being able to control the time of possession the past few weeks as the run-heavy offense has kept the Ravens defense more rested.

Some are even beginning to discuss Jackson as a viable candidate to win the Offensive Rookie of the Year award in the NFL.

Jackson has completed 58.2% of his passes as the starting quarterback which is good for 31st in the NFL. He has five touchdowns and three interceptions through the air. He is averaging a total of 233.5 yards-per-game (155.8 through the air and 77.7 on the ground). He has also pitched in two rushing touchdowns. Jackson has fumbled eight times in his six starts as well.

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At this moment, I was not a happy camper. Lamar has changed my mind so far. Can he keep it up? Image Credit: Orlando Sentinel

With that being said, if the Ravens defense plays a slightly below average game by their standards this Sunday against the Browns and gives up 21 points, I am not confident that the Ravens can score enough to win. Here’s why. Since taking over, the Ravens offense has scored a total of 20.5 points-per-game over the last six weeks which is roughly a touchdown less than what their last six opponents have surrendered on average.

The Browns surrender 24.4 points-per-game. That would put the Ravens at 17 points given their recent trend. Without a defensive or special teams score, or the benefit of another defensive masterpiece, the Ravens will need more from their offense this Sunday if they want to clinch the North and earn a home playoff game.

Here’s hoping Jackson delivers enough on offense to get the Ravens over the top.

Predictions

Jake McDonnell: Ravens 27 Browns 24

Nolan McGraw: Ravens 23 Browns 20

Jay Stavros: Ravens 28 Browns 17

Ian Schultz: Ravens 21 Browns 17

I think that the Ravens are going to be able to make just enough plays on offense Sunday to give themselves a chance to win. With their home crowd behind them in what will hopefully be a raucous road environment for the Browns, the defense makes another critical play late and sends the Ravens to the playoffs for the first time since 2014.

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Image Credit: Baltimore Ravens

 

 

 

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Podcast Episode 31: Ravens Holiday Special: Will Baltimore host an NFL playoff game for the first time in six years?

Image Credit: The Athletic

Welcome to Episode 31 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’ monumental 22-10 win over the Los Angeles Chargers from Saturday night (6:23). Along with breaking down the Ravens’ playoff picture, we analyze the Ravens’ decision to retain head coach John Harbaugh following Friday night’s announcement (18:12). As always, we tell you Who’s Trending (28:41) and go over some things to watch for in week 17 when the Ravens take on the Browns (39:51) to try to clinch the AFC North and their first trip to the playoffs since 2014.

At the bottom of the show, we dive into our weekly numbers segment, taking a look at the best Baltimore sports athletes to wear the number 31 (52:37).

You can find the Charm City Bird Watch Podcast on SoundCloudiTunes, 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 Holidays and thank you for listening!

The Charm City Bird Watch Podcast is brought to you by Seven Sports Bar & Grille. For a limited time only on behalf on Charm City Bird Watch, you can receive a 10% discount off any entree dish when you tell your server (including Jimmy) or bartender the promo code ‘Charm City.’ 

*Offer expires after the new year*

Five thoughts following the Ravens 22-10 win over the Chargers

The Baltimore Ravens took the field on Saturday night dressed in their classic all-white uniforms and proceeded to pick up a 22-10 win on the shoulders of a heavy rush attack and a strong defense. What year is it?

It certainly didn’t feel like 2018 but I won’t waste any more of your time by setting the scene. Here are five takeaways from the Ravens biggest win of the season.

1 – First half domination (sort of):

If you missed the game and had to follow along with score updates, you would probably think the Ravens had a rough first half. A 6-3 lead was less than ideal but there was way more to like about the first half than dislike. The Baltimore defense was locked in for the entire half and absolutely manhandled the Chargers offense.

It all started on the first play when Philip Rivers tried to go deep down the sideline but was picked off by Brandon Carr. Mike Williams had Carr beat but Rivers under-threw the ball, allowing the Ravens corner to regain control and make a play.

The Ravens first turnover of the night set the tone for the first half and the rest of the game. The Chargers offense did not pick up a first down until the beginning of the second quarter and could not cross mid-field until the end of the half when a pass interference call finally moved them into Ravens territory.

Despite all of this, the Ravens offense only mustered six points. They certainly had their opportunities but could not capitalize. Justin Tucker missed a 53-yard field goal in the first quarter but on the next possession the Ravens found themselves in the red zone again. After getting stopped on third and goal, John Harbaugh decided to go for it but Lamar Jackson’s pass sailed out of the back of the end zone and the Ravens were left with another empty possession.

2 – Poor field conditions:

One of the things that made the first half ugly was the amount of plays stopped by a player losing their footing. Both teams had trouble with this early on but it seemed to impact the Ravens a little more as the road team. Carr fell down twice in coverage and later on in the first quarter Gus Edwards slipped on a run, tripping James Hurst in the process. The Ravens left guard was shaken up on the play but later returned to the game.

The footing issues disappeared at the half and didn’t have much of an impact on the remainder of the game. I would assume some players switched cleats during the break but that’s just a guess. The Chargers temporary home has been clowned for its seating capacity but I have not heard any complaints about the field up until now. Thankfully it did not have a bigger impact on the outcome of the game.

3 – Jackson outplays Rivers:

Perhaps one of the most surprising outcomes from this game was how the quarterback dual played out. I don’t think many people expected Jackson to have this good of a game, let alone outshine a future hall of fame quarterback.

Jackson finished the night 12-for-22 with 204 yards and a touchdown. It marks the first time Jackson has thrown for over 200 yards in his six-game career. On the other hand, Rivers was very lackluster, going 23-for-37 with 181 yards and two interceptions. Not only did Jackson have a better game throwing the ball, but he also continued to be a factor in the run game by adding 39 yards on the ground.

It has absolutely nothing to do with the outcome of the game but I thoroughly enjoyed seeing Jackson act as cool as a cucumber through the whole game while Rivers did nothing but yell and scream at the refs. Everyone has highlighted the differences between Jackson and Joe Flacco the past five weeks, but the one similarity seems to be their demeanor in big games.

4 – Getting it done on third and long: 

After the Ravens defense broke our hearts a few weeks ago in a loss to Kansas City, it was nice to see them get the job done in third and long situations this time around. The Chargers started the game 0-for-6 on third down and their most favorable distance in that span was 3rd-and-15. That should tell you everything you need to know. Whether it was the Ravens pass rush setting up these long down situations or the Chargers committing offensive penalties, Baltimore was able to take advantage and get off the field.

5 – Pass rush comes up big in key situations:

It has certainly been a roller coaster year for the Ravens pass rush. We all know about the monster game they put together in Tennessee but there have also been a handful of games where the defensive line was not able to get to the opposing quarterback at all.

Saturday wasn’t the biggest day for the pass rush but it was one of the most clutch. After taking the run option away from the Chargers the Ravens knew that the ball would be in Rivers hands with the game on the line. This allowed them to do what they do best and send the house in key situations. More often than not it was a success for Baltimore as they recorded four sacks.

All four sacks came in the second half and three ultimately led to a Chargers punt. The biggest of the night was the final one recorded by Za’Darius Smith. The Ravens outside linebacker quickly shed a block and got to Rivers before he could look down field. What made it the biggest sack of the game was the timing. The Chargers were driving and had the ball at the Ravens 29-yard line with under six minutes to play. Smith dropped Rivers for an 11-yard loss and not only forced fourth down, but also pushed the Chargers out of field goal range in a six-point game.

One more game:

This win sets up yet another high-drama game for the Ravens to close out the season. For the second straight year they will host a division opponent in week 17 with the playoffs hanging in the balance. Last year the Bengals came to town and spoiled Baltimore’s chances at the postseason and this year the Browns will be looking to do the same.

While Cleveland was technically eliminated from playoff contention when the Titans won on Saturday, they are still playing with a lot of energy and purpose at this point in the season. That is something we haven’t been able to say about the Browns in a very long time. Cleveland definitely poses a threat to the Ravens, especially after coming out victorious in the first meeting between the two teams earlier this year.

If there is one advantage to the NFL’s scheduling blunder this week it is the fact that the Ravens will have an extra day to deal with any jet leg flying back to the east coast. It is commonly said by athletes that flying west to east is more difficult than the other direction. The Ravens will get back to Baltimore on Sunday and have some extra time to get adjusted before hitting the practice field.

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Image credit: Marcio Jose Sanchez / AP