The Ravens have won four straight games and now control their own destiny to return to the postseason. I have four thoughts about the team that has won four in a row because, you know, that’s how the internet works.
1. I did not root for the Pittsburgh Steelers to win on Sunday.
This might not be a terribly relevant topic for a column considering Ravens fans won’t need to root for the Steelers again — hopefully ever — but it struck me as interesting while watching football Dec. 27.
Let’s get a few things out of the way. One, I’m not quite as unbridled in my fandom of just about anything in sports as the typical Baltimorean. The job requires that. I must be capable of criticism. I’ve never lied about my allegiances. I was born here. I’m lived here for all but two years of my life. I’m a Baltimore sports fan since birth, a Ravens “fan” from Day 1 of their existence. I am forced to offer criticism when it’s due (examples: their inability to draft wide receivers, their handling of the Ray Rice incident, etc.), but I never shy away from my preference to see the team succeed. It helps shape such criticism.
But in a weird way, I don’t necessarily get to “enjoy” Ravens wins quite as much as others. I haven’t been able to watch a game with friends in … I genuinely do not remember how long. That’s just fine, I enjoy the job. But my thoughts after a Ravens win are typically more central to what that means for work purposes than to pure ecstasy.
Yet there’s something else that does allow me pure unrequited joy and it is directly related to my Ravens fandom. With all due respect to the demon Azrael from the film “Dogma” (super relevant current pop culture reference!), there is no pleasure, no rapture, no exquisite sin greater than … watching the Pittsburgh Steelers lose a football game. (Except maybe watching Duke lose a basketball game, but we’ll save that subject for another day).
I acknowledge that the Steelers winning their game helped the Ravens. I tipped my cap to them on our “Project Gameday” postgame show. I have to assume that’s probably the greatest moment in the history of their franchise. But that’s all I could offer. Watching the Steelers win will simply never give me joy. I can’t fathom “rooting” for something whose result will not give you joy. Which isn’t to judge any of you who did (for example, my postgame show co-host “The NFL Chick” Syreeta Hubbard, who admitted that she would have waved the stupid towel during the game if she had one). I just couldn’t do it.
2. I did not think Lamar Jackson was Ravens team MVP this season.
Ravens beat reporters chose Jackson, tackle Orlando Brown Jr., kicker Justin Tucker and cornerback Marlon Humphrey as the four finalists for the annual honor, as voted on by the media. As good as Mark Andrews and Patrick Queen have been at various points, I think those are probably the correct candidates.
The choice was difficult. Jackson has clearly come on again down the stretch, including one of the greatest regular-season plays in team history against the Browns. But he also bears responsibility for the losses that could have kept the Ravens out of the postseason, particularly his abysmal performance in the first loss to the Steelers.
It is fair to point out that Humphrey hasn’t been quite as brilliant since his own bout with COVID-19 as he was before. He spent the first half of the season playing at a level that was worthy of Defensive Player of the Year conversation. Had he played all 15 games, he might have had a better chance of breaking the record for most forced fumbles in a season (he’s still only two behind the mark with a game to play).
While there is no doubt that I’m partly judging Jackson by his own incredible standard, I still believe Humphrey was the most consistent high-level player for the entirety of the season.
Additionally, Ravens beat reporters decided to not give out the annual “Media Good Guy” award because they were afforded so little access to players amidst the pandemic. That’s totally understandable. I personally think offensive lineman Bradley Bozeman has been the absolute DEFINITION of “media good guy,” going out of his way to find more opportunities to talk to the media despite media members having no access to the team’s locker room. He also just so happens to be the absolute best guy.
3. I’m more apprehensive about the Bengals than I was the Giants or the Jaguars.
I’m not telling you that I think the Ravens will lose to Cincinnati. I’m not telling you that you, Ravens fan, shouldn’t be confident about the Ravens punching their ticket. But you’ve seen what the Bengals have done just as much as I have. They’re invested. They’re trying. They absolutely have not rolled over despite being well out of it for a while.
The Bengals appeared motivated by the chance to spoil a division rival in the Steelers Dec. 21. This is even more direct than that. Motivation alone, of course, does not make a team a threat. And the Bengals on paper still don’t seem like a team that should be able to beat the Ravens. But if the Ravens make a few mistakes, Cincinnati seems unlikely to just pack it in for the season.
4. Despite this week’s results, the Steelers are still the most desirable first-round opponent. Except maybe the Colts.
Yes, Pittsburgh’s offense came to life in the second half against the Colts and yes, the Titans’ defense leaves more than a little to be desired. But Pittsburgh’s utter inability to run the football makes them the best possible matchup for the Ravens in the first weekend, particularly provided Baltimore gets cornerbacks Marcus Peters and Jimmy Smith back on the field before then. Tennessee remains a threat to just be clicking offensively for 60 minutes no matter who the opposing defense is. Buffalo, of course, has largely looked like a juggernaut of late.
If Indianapolis could somehow win while Tennessee and Miami both lose, the Ravens would face the Colts in Round 1 and would have to love their chances there. Of course, the Ravens still have to prove that they can win a playoff game against, well, anyone.
For now, it’s just nice to have this conversation instead of the doomsday concerns we felt a week ago.
Photo Credit: Kenya Allen/PressBox