The outcome for the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday was nearly as frigid as the weather. Only a final quarter of good fortune and a fortuitous defensive play led by two stars of the secondary allowed the AFC North leaders to survive an otherwise pedestrian effort against the woeful Carolina Panthers in a 13-3 victory.
It wasn’t a very good football game but this win makes it four in a row for a squad that has been dominant enough to hold double-digit leads in the fourth quarter of all 10 games this season. It’s hard to knock that fact. This season’s version of Harbaugh’s troops flashes enough spurts of excellence – and sometimes even potential for dominance when the running game starts rolling downhill – without ever looking like it has a true knockout punch.
Until Marcus Peters punched a ball out of the hands of Panthers wide receiver Shi Smith midway through the fourth quarter – and even that needed the slo-mo to confirm the fumble – there was plenty to sweat out on a bright and clear but blustery cold day on those south shaded Ravens sidelines for the first three quarters of chilly, lousy football.
But let’s not bury the lead: left tackle Ronnie Stanley had his bad left ankle rolled up on and winning a Super Bowl will require him protecting the blind side of Lamar Jackson if this team is going to be representing the American Football Conference in Glendale, Arizona on February 12th.
And if you watched Lamar closely on Sunday – and witnessed him getting some kind of medical attention on the sideline and his late appearance in the locker room after the game spoke of a “stomach bug” – he certainly didn’t appear to be peak-energy Lamar. It didn’t feel like No. 8 was his usual self, beyond the inhospitable winter-style weather that always seems to take an adjustment for the cold hands of the warm-hearted kid from sunny South Florida. Despite Lamar’s running to victory on the game-salting touchdown, the Ravens didn’t run the ball well on Sunday. The early down and distances created punts until Jackson completed a 3rd & 13 but the offense never got rolling against the Panthers, who were thought to be vulnerable to the ground attack. Instead, we’re all getting to know rookie punter Jordan Stout a little too well recently.
The confidence level of the Ravens making the playoffs figures to continue to grow as these wins stack. And the weather figures to be a lot more pleasant in North Florida (or is South Georgia?) on Sunday against the Jaguars. And at 3-7, they stink, just like the other Sun King franchise of Paul Tagliabue’s 1990s museum tour that gave the Ravens four quarters of dreary fits on Sunday in Baltimore.
All of these teams in front of the Ravens stink like failed expansion franchises but must warrant respect on Sunday afternoons. A stream of lousy teams with no January hopes will be popping up every week through the Festivus season and it’s the Ravens largest task to keep enough distance as to not make the 3 p.m. hour interesting in the coming weeks. But the biggest outcome in any of these victories will reside on the injury sheet and who will be available next week.
On Sunday, the Ravens finally got Mark Andrews back but appear to have lost Ronnie Stanley and perhaps Kyle Hamilton as well for the time being. Maybe Gus Edwards comes back against the Jaguars? Maybe David Ojabo will also get on the field soon?
The offense is still a sputter and a spit, especially when the running game isn’t working early. And too many guys dropping too many passes, even when Lamar is perfect. Kenyon Drake, Patrick Ricard and Isaiah Likely all left yards and possessions on the field against Carolina. But Sunday’s promise remains that perhaps Demarcus Robinson is ready to step into a leadership role in the wide receivers room and is ready to emerge as the 9-catch, 128-yard threat he was against the Panthers secondary.
But the middle of the Ravens defense – and the defense in general – continues to shine as Marlon Humphrey speaks of “goose eggs” in the post-game preferred scrum. This defense is playing faster, more physical, running to the ball and building trust and confidence. This defense looks to take the ball away and does.
And as much as the defense was the rightfully maligned portion of the squad with the massive squandered leads back when they were playing NFL contenders in September, it’s the men of Mike Macdonald who have managed to capitalize the “D” in his unit with a wealth of new players and deep depth.
New faces like Jason Pierre-Paul and Roquan Smith have made their presence known. This is a vastly different unit than what we saw against those AFC East teams two months ago and certainly the way the defensive personnel and depth chart was drawn up all off season. One thing for sure, former first-round pick Patrick Queen has become a better football player when he’s had better players playing better around him. This defense is now getting the ball on the regular and getting after opposing quarterbacks as a consistent threat and pass rush unit. Marcus Peters strips everything. Marlon Humphrey can often back up his mouth. And the defensive line by committee led by Calais Campbell dominated the running game of the Panthers.
While we can all continue to wonder aloud how Baker Mayfield ever threw the football well enough to be a first overall NFL draft pick, there’s no disputing that the constant pressure and coverage on the backend made it a long, frustrating day for the man who was progressively chased out of Cleveland and now has the back-up indignity of the Panthers offense with few weapons.
The Ravens are far from precise on offense right now. And the offensive penalties put the game in jeopardy all afternoon and bad down and distances are kryptonite for Lamar Jackson and the passing game.
The many dubious challenges of John Harbaugh aren’t always rewarded. He spent a good portion of the afternoon chasing the officials around with words and red laundry and even found himself on the right side of the law and outcome on a day when it mattered.
The strangest takeaway with the blustery weather on Sunday is how that really neutralizes the advantage of having the best kicker in the league. And watching Buffalo get seven-feet of snow and mobilizing its franchise in Detroit and winning. And wondering about how bad weather in Kansas City or Buffalo moves the needle in January for not allowing Justin Tucker to kick beyond 50 yards.
Sunday was a survival game. It’s the NFL. They’re all big wins. But it was far from a confidence builder for what the Ravens are ultimately trying to do on offense.