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Questions and all, Ravens providing another thrilling ride so far this season

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Lamar Jackson and the Ravens return to where it all began on Thursday night.

It was 26 months ago that the South Florida native threw five touchdown passes in a 59-10 blowout in Miami to open the 2019 season, a drastic change from how run-heavy Baltimore had played down the stretch in Jackson’s rookie year to qualify for the playoffs. That lopsided victory laid the foundation for an incredible 14-2 season in which the juggernaut Ravens were one of the NFL’s best regular-season teams of the last decade and Jackson was the unanimous league MVP at the age of 22.

John Harbaugh’s team has been held to that near-impossible standard ever since, which is a big reason why you continue to hear so many questions about a first-place outfit tied in the loss column for the best record in the AFC despite losing a number of Pro Bowl players and key contributors to season-ending injuries. But there are fair concerns and numbers at which to take pause.  

After leading the NFL in point differential in each of the last two years, Baltimore enters Week 10 ranked eighth in the AFC at plus-26, a far cry from its plus-249 over the 2019 season — the highest mark in the NFL since the 2007 New England Patriots — or even last year’s plus-165. The Ravens own a minus-three turnover margin, are allowing more yards per play (6.3) than they’re gaining (6.1), and have finished with a lower efficiency rating than their opponent in five of eight games this season. Those aren’t exactly great indicators of future success, and the Ravens haven’t even reached the most difficult part of their schedule that begins after Thanksgiving.

We know the Ravens have completed fourth-quarter comebacks in four of their six wins and trailed by double digits in the second half of three of those contests. They’ve provided tremendous, heart-stopping theater, but it’s certainly not the way a team with Super Bowl aspirations prefers to navigate a 17-game schedule. 

“I’d rather not be behind. I’d rather just step on the gas and just keep going, just keep scoring,” said Jackson after Sunday’s 34-31 overtime win over Minnesota. “I’d rather not be playing from behind. But our team, we’re fighters. We believe in each other. We’ve got faith.”

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This is where we acknowledge the Ravens are playing in an AFC full of dented cans and unproven young teams. As of right now, there is no dominant force.

Red-hot Tennessee is leading the conference at 7-2, but will the Titans overcome the loss of Derrick Henry, arguably the most valuable non-quarterback in the entire NFL? How does Buffalo go from looking like like the cream of the crop to inexplicably losing to Jacksonville? In just two weeks, Cincinnati went from the top spot in the AFC to last place in the AFC North. And while no one should be burying Patrick Mahomes and the defending AFC champions by any means, the once-mighty Kansas City Chiefs are struggling offensively and can’t seem to stop turning the ball over.

The Ravens still have a lot going for them despite countless injuries, the shaky offensive line play, and a defense that can’t stop giving up big plays.

In addition to having as good a resume as any coach not named Bill Belichick in today’s NFL, Harbaugh continues to give the Ravens an analytics edge on game days by playing to maximize win probability rather than practicing the risk aversion that still paralyzes even some of the better coaches in the league. There aren’t many coaches going for it on fourth down inside their own 40-yard line as Harbaugh did on each of Baltimore’s first two drives of the third quarter against Minnesota, but that’s the difference between playing to win and playing to manage the scoreboard. Such a mindset makes a difference, especially for a team with some real flaws.

After years of organizational failure at wide receiver, Marquise Brown and Rashod Bateman are rapidly looking like the most talented homegrown duo the Ravens have enjoyed at the position since they were the Browns arriving in Baltimore with Michael Jackson and Derrick Alexander in 1996. Brown, a 2019 first-round pick, has played like a Pro Bowl receiver for a calendar year now while Bateman, the 27th overall pick in this year’s draft, has looked more like a polished veteran in his first three career games than a rookie who missed two months due to groin surgery. And oh yeah, Mark Andrews isn’t too shabby either as he’s on pace to make the Pro Bowl and easily have the best season by a tight end in Ravens history.  

Still, that belief and that faith mentioned by Jackson begins and ends with the quarterback himself. The Ravens aren’t as dominant as they were two years ago and may not even be as good as they were last season, but Jackson is throwing the ball downfield better than ever while continuing to run more effectively than any quarterback in NFL history. There may be quarterbacks having better statistical seasons passing the ball, but none are more important to their teams than Jackson, who can throw four touchdowns to complete a second-half comeback or run 20-plus times for over 100 yards to lead Baltimore to victory. The Ravens certainly wouldn’t have anywhere close to six wins with a mere mortal at quarterback.

More than ever, the Ravens have needed Jackson’s production — he leads the NFL with 2,809 offensive yards — and brilliance, which extends beyond his physical gifts.

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“I would definitely say his football IQ,” said Bateman when asked what impresses him the most about the star quarterback. “Being at this level, your football IQ has to be very high to compete and to be successful at this level. And [when] he comes back to the sideline, he talks to us. Even at practice, he just sees things in a whole different way that we don’t see.”

While continuing to ponder just how good this team really is, one still shouldn’t take even “ugly” victories for granted when observing the league’s volatile nature on a weekly basis. To their credit, the Ravens have avoided most of the pitfalls to this point, which is both a compliment to their resolve and a warning since we’ve seen no shortage of good teams slip against bad ones with plenty of season to go. If the lowly Jaguars could beat the Bills last Sunday, the Dolphins can certainly knock off a Ravens team that’s coming off a long overtime game and traveling on a short week.

But don’t let the questions and doubts take away from enjoying the ride and the Lamar Jackson Experience. Despite the many ifs and buts, Baltimore is 6-2 for the seventh time in franchise history and led — sometimes carried — by the most electrifying player in football. Regardless of any other circumstances, the Ravens not only always have a chance, but they have a good chance with Jackson at quarterback.

All but a few teams would sell their souls for such a situation.

“At the end of the day, it’s hard to get wins in this league,” said inside linebacker Josh Bynes, a member of the Super Bowl XLVII champion Ravens. “I don’t care how you get it. I don’t care if [the score] is 99-98 as long as we have one point more than them.”

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