The Ravens showed the difference between a contender and a pretender in Jacksonville on Sunday night.
The 23-7 win that officially clinched a playoff spot wasn’t the most impressive performance of the season, but Baltimore made the plays — and avoided the mistakes — that mattered most. Meanwhile, the Jaguars repeatedly shot themselves in the foot to lose their third straight game — all against AFC North teams — and fall into a three-way tie for first place in the AFC South.
Also fancying themselves a serious contender for the No. 1 seed right around Thanksgiving, the Jaguars have learned fortunes can turn quickly in December. In contrast, the Ravens continued taking care of business with their eighth win in the last nine games, including four straight victories on the road.
With final numbers more closely resembling a performance from his magical 2019 campaign, Lamar Jackson completed just three passes in the second half, but his escape and 26-yard jump ball to tight end Isaiah Likely in the final minute of the third quarter was the stuff of MVPs and the game’s most spectacular play. And on a night when Baltimore wide receivers made a total of five catches against a banged-up Jacksonville secondary, Likely again did a heck of a Mark Andrews impersonation as he also caught a 16-yard touchdown late in the first half to bail out left guard John Simpson for an unnecessary roughness penalty a play earlier.
Registering only one sack and allowing 5.5 yards per play a week after surrendering a season-worst 5.6 per play to the Los Angeles Rams last week, the defense may not have dominated to its typical degree statistically, but a single touchdown allowed reflects very little breaking despite some bending. Two missed field goals and quarterback Trevor Lawrence’s mind-numbing miscues at the end of the first half definitely helped, but Mike Macdonald’s unit forcing three straight Jacksonville three-and-outs after Jamal Agnew’s 65-yard touchdown catch midway through the third quarter put Baltimore in position to lean into the running game — which accounted for 204 yards after intermission — to pull away late. The defense certainly atoned for last year’s late-game meltdown in Jacksonville.
The Ravens were the better team with the superior quarterback, allowing them to move to 11-3 and remain a game ahead of Miami for the AFC’s top spot. The victory also eases pressure ahead of the Christmas night showdown at San Francisco knowing even a loss to the NFC-leading 49ers wouldn’t derail the path to holding off the 10-4 Dolphins and 9-5 Kansas City for home-field advantage with wins in the final two games of the season. A win over San Francisco would not only fuel Baltimore’s Super Bowl dreams, but it would give John Harbaugh’s team the opportunity to clinch the AFC’s top spot by besting Miami on New Year’s Eve.
Of course, we know the Ravens aren’t devoid of concerns as a couple were on full display in Sunday’s win.
The season-ending knee injury to speedy running back Keaton Mitchell was a heartbreaking development for the undrafted rookie and eliminates significant upside from a ground attack that doesn’t want to lean too hard on Jackson, who rushed for 97 yards on 12 carries in Sunday’s win. Even if Justice Hill and former two-time Pro Bowl selection Melvin Gordon step up, eliminating the home-run potential of a back averaging 8.4 yards per carry hurts, especially when pondering the potentially harsher weather of January.
And then there’s an offensive line that continued to employ a rotation at both offensive tackle spots with Ronnie Stanley and Morgan Moses clearly not 100% even after the bye week. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, Jackson was pressured on nearly half of his dropbacks on Sunday night, which resulted in three sacks, multiple scrambles, and a few jaw-dropping escapes such as the one leading to the long pass to Likely. But for full context, Jackson’s average time to throw in the pocket was also his longest of the season, which skewed perception and placed an unfair burden on the offensive line at times.
Concerns on that front only grew with Stanley exiting to be evaluated for a concussion late in the game, and it’s not a secret that several projected AFC playoff teams — as well as the 49ers on Monday night — are among the NFL’s best pass-rushing units. Losing a misdirection weapon like Mitchell eliminates another way to keep defensive fronts honest in trying to get after Jackson.
The truth is every contender is dealing with some injuries and at least a couple soft spots at this stage of the season. With the possible exception of San Francisco — and we’ll gain a better idea on Christmas — no team is looking more formidable than Baltimore entering Week 16, especially with Jackson healthy and playing at such a composed, elite level.
The Ravens have earned their current position atop the AFC with three weeks to go, and they illustrated the difference between a contender and a pretender in getting the job done Sunday night while Jacksonville continued falling back to the rest of the pack.