CLEVELAND — After stumbling through the first 25 minutes, the Ravens found their footing with three consecutive touchdown drives and held on for a 31-15 win against the Cleveland Browns at FirstEnergy Stadium, clinching the AFC’s No. 1 overall playoff seeding for the first time in franchise history.
The Ravens (13-2) also extended the franchise-record regular-season winning streak to 11 and have tied the team record for wins in a season with one game remaining.
“It is just the best season I have ever been a part of, and this is my 13th year,” Pro Bowl guard Marshal Yanda said. “It is awesome.”
This was far from the Ravens’ best performance, as they scuffled on offense for most of the first half and committed several key penalties as the Browns (6-9) held a 6-0 lead late into the second quarter. The Ravens’ first four possessions ended with a turnover on downs, a fumble and two punts.
But touchdown passes by quarterback Lamar Jackson on three consecutive drives straddling halftime propelled the Ravens to their 11th straight win and further cemented Jackson’s Most Valuable Player candidacy, as did his fifth 100-yard rushing game of the season. He finished with 17 carries for 103 yards, giving him 1,206 for the season.
“He’s worked so hard, and he’s such a complete quarterback,” tight end Mark Andrews said. “There’s no one else like him. There’s no one that’s been like him in the NFL. He’s just so incredible. Such a fun guy to play with.”
Here are five quick impressions of the win, which also sets a Ravens franchise record with their seventh road win in a season:
1 This team can score quickly, too.
More than once this year, the Ravens have worn teams down with seven- and eight-minute drives, beating down a defense physically. Against the Browns, though, the Ravens also flashed their quick-strike ability, putting together a pair of touchdown drives in two-minute mode in the final 1:18 of the first half.
On the first score, which gave the Ravens the lead for good, Jackson connected with Andrews on a 39-yard touchdown catch, capping a two-play touchdown drive that also featured a 24-yard pass from Jackson to Mark Ingram.
The Ravens forced a quick three-and-out — and the Browns surely helped the Ravens by using just 23 seconds on three straight incompletions when the Ravens were out of timeouts — and the offense took over again with 55 seconds left in the half.
What followed was perhaps their best two-minute drive of the season, as Jackson went 5-for-7 for 75 yards in 46 seconds. He hit Andrews for 24 yards, then found running back Justice Hill on a 14-yard swing pass that stopped the clock when Hill got out of bounds. A pair of receptions by receiver Seth Roberts moved the ball to the 14-yard line, and then Jackson made a double-clutching throw for Andrews, who leaped high to haul in the touchdown catch with nine seconds left in the half.
Andrews said the two-minute offense is “a little different for us,” but it was simply “everyone doing their job, making plays. It was awesome to see.”
“That type of thing is going to come in handy down the road,” he added.
2. Lamar Jackson’s red-zone play might be his biggest improvement of all.
Jackson added two more red-zone touchdowns against the Browns, throwing a double-clutching 14-yard score to Andrews just before halftime and then a 12-yard score to Ingram early in the third quarter for a 21-6 lead.
With those two throws, Jackson in the red zone this year now has 24 touchdown passes and no interceptions.
Before the season, when critics were questioning Jackson’s accuracy, they pointed to the tighter windows and compressed space of the red zone and wondering whether that would be a limiting factor for him. As he’s done all season, he’s simply proven those critics wrong time and time again.
Jackson last week said that as a rookie, he felt the offense stagnated too often near the goal line, leading to short field goals by kicker Justin Tucker. That’s not happening this season. Last year, the Ravens ranked 20th in the league in red-zone touchdown percentage. They entered this week’s game ranked third this year.
And Jackson isn’t turning the ball over, either. His play inside the opposing 20-yard line is consistently leading to touchdowns, and what could be six points is instead 14. It speaks to the high efficiency with which this offense has operated all season.
For all the improvement Jackson has shown this year, his red-zone play might be where it has been more notable and most important.
3. A fourth-quarter drive shows why the Ravens should sit key players next week.
With the win, the Ravens have secured home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, which means they have also earned the right to liberally use their roster next week in a game that has no playoff implications for them.
If they had any doubt about how they should proceed, a fourth-quarter possession should end that. In quick succession, running back Mark Ingram, quarterback Lamar Jackson and tight end Mark Andrews all were left hobbling.
Ingram left the game and didn’t return with a calf injury, Andrews left briefly and Jackson never left, and after the game, Andrews downplayed any injury concerns. Head coach John Harbaugh said there were nothing structural to Ingram’s calf injury, but it is a situation that bears watching.
Given they own the No. 1 seeding in the AFC playoffs regardless of their Week 17 game, the Ravens should sit Ingram, Jackson, Andrews and a couple of other key veterans who are either banged up or would benefit from some time off.
Harbaugh said no decisions have been made, and he would discuss the situation with his players leadership council to gauge their opinion. Jackson said, “Yeah, I want to play, no doubt, but it’s Coach’s decision.”
Some will argue that by sitting out the Week 17 game, and then having a bye in the first round of the playoffs, key Ravens will lose their edge with three weeks between games. But this team needs its key players healthy for a playoff run. Seeing injuries — minor or not — mount in the late stages of this game underscores the importance of avoiding any such scenario next week.
Granted, this isn’t the preseason, when the locker room is crammed with 90 players. The Ravens still have to dress 46 players, but key veterans and banged-up players should sit this one out.
Robert Griffin III said this offeason before re-signing with the Ravens that he wanted a chance to start again. He should get that chance against Pittsburgh Dec. 29.
4. The Ravens’ defense was motivated by the Week 4 loss.
The Ravens no doubt watched film all week of the Browns’ 40-25 win in Week 4, when running back Nick Chubb ran for 165 yards and quarterback Baker Mayfield threw for 342 yards.
The Ravens’ defense looks dramatically different now, with defensive tackle Brandon Williams back after missing that game with an injury, and with the addition of players such as linebacker Josh Bynes, linebacker L.J. Fort — who nearly had two interceptions — cornerback Marcus Peters, defensive end Domata Peko and defensive end Jihad Ward. As linebacker Matthew Judon pointed out, none of them has lost as a Raven this season.
The defense played differently, too, especially against the run. Chubb was bottled up for long stretches. The league’s leading rusher finished with 15 carries for 45 yards, his lowest total of the season. He had eight carries for just 17 yards in the first half.
Receiver Jarvis Landry had another solid game, with seven catches for 74 yards, and cornerback Jimmy Smith had a rough afternoon with three penalties that extended Browns drives. But Mayfield struggled to get in any rhythm, and the Ravens’ defense did a good job to limit the Browns to six first-half points while the Ravens offense was struggling early.
All week leading up to this game, the Ravens insisted that they are a better defense than they showed in that Week 4 loss. On the field this time, they were.
5. Anything short of the Super Bowl is going to be a letdown.
Now that the Ravens have secured the No. 1 seeding in the AFC, they are the odds-on favorite to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl. And, to be honest, they should be. They have beaten three playoffs teams in the AFC and two of the top teams in the NFC. They have won in tough road venues and squeaked out a couple of last-second wins. They have earned every bit of their No. 1 seeding.
“It’s a big accomplishment,” Harbaugh said. “I just think the players deserve a tremendous amount of credit for it because it’s hard. It’s difficult and challenging to win a game in the National Football League. When you have put together the kind of season that these players have put together, it’s quite an accomplishment.”
As Harbaugh said recently, the final story of this season is yet unwritten. Each game played has raised the stakes higher — notwithstanding the game next week against the Steelers which now has no bearing on their playoff position because of their No. 1 status.
But when the playoffs begin, the Ravens will be two wins away from the Super Bowl, and both those games would be played at home. The pressure mounts, but this team has capably handled pressure all season.
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