ColunmnNes: The letdown – and victory – we all could’ve expected from the Ravens in the desert

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It isn’t always going to be as easy as the Ravens made it look against the Detroit Lions last week.

“We weren’t great,” is how head coach John Harbaugh began his post-game statement in Arizona on Sunday in the aftermath of a choppy effort and 31-24 victory over the woeful Cardinals. And the Coach Hardball truth just about sums it up if you’ve been watching the NFL long enough. This was par for the Glendale desert dome course for the Ravens as a franchise over three decades – a pretty typical 4 o’clock, West Coast slog against the backup quarterback of a 1-6 team.

At one point it was 24-7 and a cover and a dream. And then the Ravens allowed a weak team with a motivated backup quarterback a teaspoon of hope and a sliver of belief. And in the end, the old Special Teams Coach needed his team and Nelson Agholor to lean into a second onside kick at the end of the game to escape and survive.

The Ravens found a way to win a road game while still trying to figure out a way to consistently move the football, avoid penalties and the punishment it involves, and cease turning the ball over.

Other than Marcus Williams (who is still quite a stranger in purple over two seasons) and the original loss of J.K. Dobbins, these are a healthy, “full” version of the Ravens. We should expect this to be coming together and improving. Last week against the stout Lions created a false expectation of the consistency that doesn’t always arrive before Halloween. We’ll choose to not be macabre about the realities of injuries and age in the NFL, but this is about as good as it’s gonna get for full health as an NFL unit.

Now, could the Ravens somehow add Derrick Henry – or some other piece in a trade – to the running attack this week, would it shock me? Nah. I saw them bring Roquan Smith in last year and that’s the sole reason in my mind that this defense is Super Bowl-worthy when healthy and functioning. Mike Macdonald has the defense ready to play. And Smith is the most consistent player on the field.

And make no mistake, the Ravens are a legitimate Super Bowl contender. The Chiefs stunk with an ill Patrick Mahomes on Sunday while the Bengals and Joe Burrow came back to life, like a seasonal ghoul in the division. The Jaguars look like a real ascending contender and the Ravens will get a chance for a holiday visit to Jacksonville. The Steelers are circling the drain. The Browns are browning. And the Bills and Dolphins are still winning football games.

But the Ravens offense is still quite the work in progress for offensive coordinator Todd Monken and trying to employ a cupboard of weapons in an effective symphony that puts the team in a position to finish drives.

It’s all about Lamar Jackson. And it’s all about the running game and making first down progress to allow drives to be sustained. Even Number 8 opined in the post game that he’d like to see the team run the ball a little better early in games. But who is going to run the ball? Gus Edwards had a nice day but there’s no reason to believe he’ll become the first half feature back.

Jackson is taking more sacks than we care to see. And some of the errant passes have now seemed to catch up to the dropped passes of the past month. And some other passes that are high risk and low reward have flirted with disaster. And when the running game evaporates, there is an expectation that Lamar needs to become the $52 million running game for the Ravens offense.

And that’s dangerous.

The Ravens are 6-2 “at the turn” as we used to say in the old 16-game schedule. But the team is on pace – and with some semblance of expectation with full health and a multitude of home games – to host playoff games in January and be in a position to discuss bye weeks and a path to Las Vegas.

Of course, all of that is predicated on the health of Lamar Jackson. I can promise you this – if my season depended on the full health of my $260 million MVP-candidate quarterback, I wouldn’t have him running draw plays up the middle in final minutes of 9-point game. But, that’s just me.

The game becomes about the stars and the plays.

Ja’Daveon Clowney not falling on a ball late in the game created much more chaos and effort than the Ravens needed. Justin Tucker missed an early field goal, even though Ravens fans have been blinded by The GOAT into believing that 53-yard field goals in a dome are a lifetime automatic. Kyle Hamilton and Marlon Humphrey both made some key mistakes. Odell Beckham, Jr. got injured again.

Here’s a prescription: get the ball to Mark Andrews. He’s like the cowbell in a great band – I need more of it. And there is no excellence to the Ravens offense without him being a key component. The rest of the receivers are ordinary with the exception of Zay Flowers after the catch, but the league is onto him and pushing him around at the line of scrimmage and across the middle.

Meanwhile, Roquan Smith remains the best player on the field most weeks. I don’t want to say he reminds me of Fifty Two but it’s the closest kind of complete domination and ownership of the middle of the field we’ve seen since The Squirrel left town. C.J. Mosley was pretty good (and still is) but never like what we’re seeing on every snap from Smith.

And that makes it an even better day for Michael Pierce (along with Justin Madubuike) to dominate up front like he did against the Cardinals on Sunday. And Geno Stone has quickly proven that he knows how to be in the right place at the right time. And the Ravens ultimately benefited from playing a lousy, not-real-starting QB on the road in Josh Dobbs.

“The sky is limit for us,” said Lamar Jackson. But the floor is always there, too. And the Ravens might want to work on raising that for Seattle and a pair of really crucial AFC North teams at home.

The Ravens are 6-2 and coming home. It’s “Go Time” for the AFC North division pull away and separation to show that the talent and the sum of the parts start to come together for a real Festivus run.

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