Ravens handle lowly Jacksonville while still waiting for that necessary help

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BALTIMORE — It was a playoff contender and double-digit favorite hosting a lowly opponent in the thick of the Trevor Lawrence sweepstakes. 

Watching the NFC East-leading Los Angeles Rams lose to the winless New York Jets later in the day offered perspective after the Ravens flattened Jacksonville in a 40-14 win on Sunday afternoon. Baltimore may not have received any Week 15 help in its quest for a third straight trip to the playoffs, but doing what’s expected shouldn’t be taken for granted this time of year.  

Even when you’re playing one of the NFL’s worst teams, strange things can happen in this league.

Yes, it was “only” the Jaguars, but the Ravens’ largest margin of victory since Week 1 brought no shortage of feel-good moments entering the final two weeks of the regular season and — they hope — January.

Lamar Jackson had a season-high four touchdowns and threw for three scores for the first time since the opener, an impressive follow-up to last Monday’s heroics in Cleveland. Even against one of the worst defenses in the league, the Baltimore passing game hasn’t had many showings like that in a trying year spent chasing the ghost of a record-setting 2019. Since coming back from a bout with COVID-19 earlier this month, Jackson continues to look more and more like his MVP self, a scary thought for the rest of the AFC.

Returning from the reserve-COVID-19 list and having missed most of the practice week, Marquise Brown registered six catches for 98 yards, the most encouraging sign yet that the 2019 first-round pick is shaking off a concerning post-bye slump. The Ravens need big plays from him if they’re going to make meaningful noise in January.

Yannick Ngakoue had his best game as a Raven with two sacks and a forced fumble against his old team, leading a five-sack effort from a defense that was missing two of its top three cornerbacks and its best defensive lineman. Derek Wolfe registered his first sack as a Raven. And by the time Gardner Minshew and the Jaguars offense finally started showing a pulse in the second half, the game was comfortably in hand.

Dez Bryant caught his first touchdown in more than three years. It was the former Dallas Cowboy’s only catch of the afternoon, but the reaction from teammates and coaches provided a snapshot of just how good the Ravens are feeling about themselves these days after a disastrous November both on and off the field.

“We’ve just got to keep focused on what we have in front of us,” said Jackson after Baltimore’s third straight win. “We’ve got the Giants in front of us now. We’ve got to focus on those guys, get on the film, and watch those guys and pray next week the ones we need to lose [will] lose because we’ve still got to try to get to the playoffs.”

Despite their playoff chances remaining very strong if they continue winning, the Ravens can’t help but have an uneasy feeling after Indianapolis, Miami, and Cleveland all won Sunday. The probability of all three winning out remains low, but the longer the Ravens wait for that single necessary loss to move into the wild-card field, there’s always that chance of any given opponent resting players like Baltimore did in Week 17 last year.    

Either way, the Ravens need to get healthy after cornerbacks Marcus Peters and Jimmy Smith and defensive end Calais Campbell missed Sunday’s game with injuries. They lost two more players — rookie offensive lineman Tyre Phillips and backup cornerback Davontae Harris — to injuries against Jacksonville, but neither is critical to Baltimore’s week-to-week fate at the very least.

As we watch these final two weeks play out, don’t forget that the Ravens just clinched their 10th winning season under John Harbaugh, who has only one losing campaign in his 13 years as head coach. Their 2020 Super Bowl aspirations may have taken a hit due to some crippling injuries, but expectations remain high. And a big part of remaining in the conversation is handling your business against inferior opponents like they did Sunday.

Watching the Rams fall on their face against the lowly Jets reminded how that’s not a given — even during crunch time.

“You always just hammer home what’s at stake and [look] straight ahead,” Harbaugh said. “Having your eyes neither wander to the left or to the right, but keeping focused on what’s in front of you. I think it just goes back to guys who are character guys and understand perspective and understand what’s at stake.”

Still hoping that help falls into place , the Ravens just need to keep winning, which they did in emphatic fashion on Sunday.