Nothing came easily, but the Ravens were able to limp out of Buffalo with their franchise-record winning streak intact and a playoff berth secured, as Marcus Peters knocked away a Bills fourth-down pass at the goal line with 1:03 left to preserve a 24-17 win.
The Bills (9-4) bottled up quarterback Lamar Jackson for most of the game, limiting him to 40 yards rushing, but Jackson threw three touchdown passes as the Ravens (11-2) built a 24-9 lead and then held on through a fourth quarter marred by penalties.
Here are five quick takeaways of the win, which extends the Ravens’ regular-season franchise-record winning streak to nine and clinches a spot in the postseason for the eighth time in John Harbaugh’s 12 seasons as Ravens head coach:
1. Matthew Judon is going to get paid this offseason.
The Ravens’ pressure on Bills quarterback Josh Allen was relentless, as he finished 17-for-39 for 146 yards. Allen was sacked six times and hit 12 times, and at the center of much of that havoc was linebacker Matthew Judon.
Judon officially finished with five tackles, 1.5 sacks, two quarterback hits and a forced fumble, which came on a strip-sack late in the first quarter and set up the Ravens for a short scoring drive and a 10-0 lead. Judon also showed his versatility, with a couple of nice open-field tackles and he even faked the rush and dropped into zone coverage in the middle of the field to try to cross up Allen.
Judon now leads the Ravens with 8.5 sacks, the same number Za’Darius Smith recorded last year before cashing in during free agency on a four-year, $66 million deal with the Green Bay Packers. Judon still has three games to add to his numbers and figures to be one of the hotter names on the market — should he get that far.
The Ravens have a long history of developing their mid-round draft picks and then wishing them well and letting them walk when the free-agency money gets too crazy. Will Judon, who was a fifth-round pick in 2016, be next?
Judon said earlier this fall that he’s not worrying about that right now, nor should he be as the Ravens march toward the postseason. But one thing is certain: He is lining himself up for a huge payday next spring. Who will be paying him remains to be seen.
2. The Ravens’ play-calling got too cute at times and it nearly cost them.
For 13 weeks this year, the Ravens have imposed their will on their opponents with a no-nonsense run game led by Jackson and Mark Ingram.
In this game, though, the Ravens veered away from that with some play calls that appeared to be just a bit too cute. One big example: The Ravens faced third-and-1 at their own 41-yard line late in the third quarter, the ideal run scenario for this team. They have shown they won’t hesitate to take two shots at gaining a yard, going on fourth down if they somehow fail to convert on third down, which is what they did during a critical juncture in the fourth quarter against the San Francisco 49ers Dec. 1.
This time, though, Jackson dropped back, rolled out and threw a tough pass that fell incomplete just beyond the reach of tight end Nick Boyle, forcing another of Sam Koch’s season-high seven punts.
On the previous possession, Jackson threw a first-down, across-his-body floater to Marquise Brown in what looked like a poorly executed wide receiver screen. The Ravens were probably lucky it went for just an 8-yard loss — leading to another punt — because an interception seemed distinctly possible.
Twice in this game, the Ravens flanked Jackson out at wide receiver and Mark Ingram took a direct snap in a Wildcat formation. As with Joe Flacco in the past, Jackson as a wide receiver was no threat and the element of deception, which goes to the heart of the Ravens’ read-option run game, was lost with Ingram alone in the backfield. (To Ingram’s credit, the play worked once, gaining 3 yards on third-and-2.)
Offensive coordinators don’t ever want to be too predictable, so creativity is a large part of their success, and to his credit, Greg Roman has excelled in this regard all season. In this game, though, it seemed that the creativity was too cute for its own good at times.
3. The Ravens need to hope Mark Andrews’ injury is not significant.
The Ravens lost top tight end Mark Andrews early with a knee injury, and his absence was notable. Andrews has 16 third-down conversions this year, twice as many as any other Raven not named Lamar Jackson (who has 18), and the Ravens struggled all day to move the chains, going a season-worst 3-for-11 on third down.
The Bills’ defense deserves a lot of credit for that, and the Ravens’ play-calling didn’t help at times, but the Ravens and Jackson looked a little out of sorts without the dependable Andrews as an available option on third down.
The Ravens come back on a short week against the New York Jets on “Thursday Night Football,” and then get an extended week before visiting the Cleveland Browns and Andrews’ good friend, Baker Mayfield. But since they developed as rookies together last year, Jackson developed a strong rapport with Andrews, and this game underscored how much better this offense with Andrews on the field.
4. Hayden Hurst has been waiting a long time for this moment.
Lost in the Most Valuable Player candidacy of Jackson and the emerging stardom of Andrews is the fact that Hurst was selected before either of them in the 2018 draft, picked seven spots before Jackson and two rounds before Andrews.
Earlier this year, Hurst candidly said he felt like he had a lot to prove after a rookie season that was slowed by a preseason foot injury. He finished the year with 13 catches for 163 yards. Hurst has been relatively quiet this year as well, never catching more than four passes in a game, never topping more than 41 yards in a game.
But when the Ravens needed a spark on offense, and with Andrews sidelined by a thigh injury, Hurst delivered the biggest play of his career to date, catching a perfectly placed pass from Jackson and outracing everyone to the end zone for a 61-yard, catch-and-run touchdown and 17-6 lead early in the third quarter. He finished with three catches for a career-best 73 yards.
Hurst, Andrews and Nick Boyle represent the most potent tight end trio in the NFL. They entered the game with a combined total of 1,187 receiving yards, most in the league among tight ends. They also do a lot of the grunt work for the Ravens’ top-ranked run game. Hurst has been more of a “glue guy” than a splashy former first-round pick, but his presence in this game was vital.
5. John Harbaugh deserves serious Coach of the Year consideration.
The win clinches a postseason spot for the Ravens for the eighth time in Harbaugh’s 12 years as head coach and gives the Ravens a 6-1 road record. In their past seven games, they have stared down some of the best teams in the league and played in some of the toughest venues and won all of them, winning at Seattle, at Buffalo, taking down both teams that played in last year’s Super Bowl and throttling the current AFC South-leading Houston Texans.
If a sign of good coaching is having the team prepared to play, Harbaugh has done that in spades this year. But what Harbaugh has done this year is more impressive than that.
Harbaugh identified the singular talent he has in Jackson and decided he would conform his team to fit Jackson, not the other way around. With the NFL celebrating its 100th year this year, Harbaugh proclaimed that his Ravens would create a “revolutionary” way to play.
Would it work? In July and August, he couldn’t have known exactly how well it would work, and four games into the season, with the Ravens sitting at 2-2, it didn’t seem to be working out all that well.
General manager Eric DeCosta deserves a lot of credit for in-season changes that greatly improved the Ravens’ defense, such as signing linebackers Josh Bynes and L.J. Fort and trading for cornerback Marcus Peters, but give credit to Harbaugh for sticking with his plan.
The coaching job really goes back to last winter, when he made a change at offensive coordinator and handed the keys of this revolutionary offense to Greg Roman, a run-game maestro who has had experience with quarterbacks similar in many ways to Jackson. It goes back to hiring James Urban as a quarterbacks coach who would work with Jackson on a daily basis, and most of all, it goes back to the fundamental decision to rebuild this offense, as he said, “from the ground up.”
Harbaugh would probably scoff at any such Coach of the Year discussion at this point, as there are still three games remaining, and the banged-up Ravens face the improving New York Jets (5-8) — winners of four of their past five — on a short week Dec. 12.
But the Ravens ran through this gauntlet of teams, reeled off nine straight wins, and became the first AFC team to clinch a playoff spot because Harbaugh built a system centered around Jackson, stayed committed to it, and cultivated a locker room culture that is all-in on it.
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