Even without Jackson, Ravens continue surviving in AFC making little sense

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Hearing all season how hard they’ve had to lean on the heroics of Lamar Jackson to win, the Ravens falling flat against Chicago wouldn’t have been surprising after the star quarterback was ruled out with a lingering illness Sunday morning. 

Not only was Baltimore missing one of the best players on the planet, but the six other inactives for Sunday’s game were out due to injury, a list including top wide receiver Marquise Brown, starting cornerback Anthony Averett, and nose tackle Brandon Williams. And that’s not even considering the collection of Pro Bowl-caliber starters and impact players already on injured reserve for the season.

But while the top two teams in the conference entering Week 11 laid home eggs against lesser opponents on Sunday, the imperfect Ravens continued to do what they’ve done better than any team in an AFC that continues to make little sense.

They survived.

“It was definitely weird. It was very tough,” cornerback Marlon Humphrey said. “But I think once we got to pregame, everybody kind of knew, ‘Hey, this is who we’ve got; this is all we need.’ And we went from there.”

The 16-13 win wasn’t pretty, but it was the Ravens’ fifth fourth-quarter comeback victory of the season and first led by backup quarterback Tyler Huntley, who was making his first NFL start. That an uneven performance on both sides of the ball came against the Bears didn’t matter with Buffalo being walloped by Indianapolis and AFC-leading Tennessee falling to a Houston team that hadn’t won a game since Week 1. John Harbaugh’s team wasn’t going to worry about style points or take this victory for granted after last week’s brutal loss in Miami or the many inexplicable losses we’ve seen around the league all season. 

In the end, the Ravens managed to make fewer mistakes than the Bears despite that being quite the competition over the game’s first 59 minutes. And while we may not have learned much about this team that we didn’t already know beyond the impressive poise and competency shown by Huntley, Baltimore simply banking another win couldn’t have been more valuable on a day when both Cincinnati and Cleveland won to keep pace in the AFC North.

The same flaws we’ve observed all season were there again Sunday with the offensive line unable to consistently protect the pocket or create much space for Baltimore’s veteran running backs. The defense turned in another otherwise-strong performance tainted by a pair of long touchdown passes that threatened to be the difference in the game when Bears receiver Marquise Goodwin caught a 49-yard touchdown on fourth-and-11 with just under two minutes to go. That it was ex-Bengals quarterback and former AFC North foe Andy Dalton — in relief of injured rookie Justin Fields — delivering the go-ahead throw only rubbed salt in the wound for a defense that just can’t seem to stop giving up big plays at the worst times.

But there was Huntley doing his best Jackson impersonation to save the day on a third-and-12 from the Chicago 32, completing his longest pass of the afternoon on a 29-yard strike to Sammy Watkins on a busted coverage with 25 seconds to go. On the next play, Devonta Freeman ran in the game-winning touchdown as Huntley completed his final three passes on the drive with two of those being his longest completions of the afternoon.

Talk about good timing.

“Just being able to be resilient as a team despite big plays going on, this and that, we were able to find a way to win,” said outside linebacker Tyus Bowser, who registered his second sack of the day on the game’s final play. “That’s the great part about this team is that we’re resilient, and we never give up. We’ve always got each other’s back, regardless of the situation.”

The Ravens somehow found a way to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat much like they did in last-minute wins over Kansas City, Detroit, Indianapolis, and Minnesota earlier this season. If we’re being honest, it doesn’t take much imagination to picture a 7-3 team being 5-5 or even worse, but the Ravens remain the AFC’s top survivors, especially when accounting for their many injuries dating back to summer. 

Yes, on a day when the face of their franchise and best player was inactive and their flaws were again on full display, the Ravens still moved up in the conference hierarchy and maintained their lead in the division. And they needed it entering a stretch of seven consecutive games against teams currently over .500 to close the regular season. 

That isn’t going to be easy — even with Jackson back at quarterback.   

Only time will tell whether Sunday will go down as a key win in a special season or merely one of the more peculiar games in recent memory. Like everyone else in the AFC, the Ravens are in a race to improve upon their deficiencies to become a serious contender by late December and January.

But finding a way to win without Jackson on Sunday — even against a bad team — felt pretty important for a team that just keeps surviving however it can.