After a regular season like no other in NFL history, the Ravens find themselves exactly where they expected to be before it all began: back in the playoffs.

The Ravens (11-5) buried the host Cincinnati Bengals, 38-3, under a record-setting rushing attack on Jan. 3 for their fifth win in a row to secure the No. 5 seed in the AFC and advance to the playoffs for the third straight year.

They will face the Tennessee Titans (11-5), who beat the Houston Texans, 41-38, on a 37-yard field goal that banked in off the upright on the final play of the game to win the AFC South title. The game will be a rematch of last year’s divisional round playoff contest, when the visiting Titans stunned top-seeded Baltimore, 28-12.

The Ravens lost to Tennessee, 30-24, in overtime earlier this year.

For a team that was a trendy Super Bowl pick in the summer, finishing as the No. 5 seed and needing to go on the road for the playoffs might be viewed as a disappointment. But for a team that was reeling at 6-5 in early December, rolling into the playoffs on the strength of five wins in a row is empowering.

Since that 19-14 loss at Pittsburgh with a COVID-depleted roster — their fourth loss in five games — the Ravens have been perhaps the most dominant team in the league, rolling to five wins by an average of 19.4 points.

“I love where this team is right now,” head coach John Harbaugh said. “I love us going into the playoffs in this scenario at this time. I’m excited about it, and I really can’t wait to get to work [Monday] morning.”

“It’s pretty cool, but we’ve still got things we want to finish,” quarterback Lamar Jackson said. “It’s just the beginning for us, to be honest with you.”

Against the Bengals (4-11-1), the Ravens again did precisely what they needed to, putting away an inferior opponent early. For the third week in a row, the Ravens were ahead by two scores before their opponent recorded a first down, and outscored those three opponents 63-6 in the first half.

Quarterback Lamar Jackson ran for 97 of the Ravens’ team-record 404 rushing yards, becoming the first quarterback in league history with two 1,000-yard rushing seasons, as he finished at 1,005. Jackson also threw three touchdown passes, including two to Marquise Brown, before watching from the sideline in the fourth quarter.

Here are five quick impressions of the win, which secures a playoff berth for the ninth time in Harbaugh’s 13 seasons as coach:

1. The running game is still how this team wins.

For the first two-thirds of the season, as the Ravens scuffled through some missteps, players talked about searching for their offensive identity. That seemed curious given that nearly everyone returned from a rushing attack that was the most prolific in NFL history a year ago. Wasn’t the run game the identity? And if not, why not?

It was as if offensive coordinator Greg Roman was pushing buttons, trying to see if the downfield passing game, or the second-level out routes, would evolve to define this team. But even after losing All-Pro tackle Ronnie Stanley to a season-ending injury, this team slowly, surely, returned to its ground-game roots, never more emphatically than in this bludgeoning of the Bengals’ run defense.

Against the Bengals, the Ravens piled up 404 rushing yards, a franchise record and the fifth-highest single-game total in NFL history, and probably could have broken the all-time mark of 426 if Lamar Jackson hadn’t sat out the final quarter.

Jackson romped for 97 yards on 11 carries, and J.K. Dobbins piled up 160 yards on 13 carries, including a 72-yard touchdown run that was the longest play from scrimmage this season.

“I finally got the opportunity to show my speed,” said Dobbins, who finished his season with nine rushing touchdowns, a franchise record for a rookie. “[If] you give me an opportunity to go, I’m going to go. I won’t get caught. That was going through my mind. When I got to that sideline, I was like, ‘I am not getting caught.'”

The Ravens’ first drive of the third quarter summed up the total domination. The Ravens went 70 yards in five plays, with virtually no resistance from the Bengals. Jackson scrambled for 18, then kept for 6. Dobbins broke off the left side for 27, and Jackson took around right end for 20. Dobbins slashed in for a 4-yard touchdown and a 24-3 lead, and the game was effectively over.

To be sure, the Ravens won’t always find such easy running now that the playoffs have begun, but there was never any reason to search for an offensive identity. It was in the backfield all along.

2. Lamar Jackson’s red-zone success will make or break this team.

Lamar Jackson finished 10-for-18 for 113 yards, with three touchdowns and one interception, and his prettiest pass of the day was a 43-yard touchdown strike to Miles Boykin that dropped right into Boykin’s arms. It was precisely the type of deep play Jackson and the Ravens need to show they can hit to make a deep playoff run (and came after an earlier well thrown deep ball to Marquise brown was dropped).

But Jackson’s best pass of the day might have been his 9-yard touchdown throw to Brown, which underscored Jackson’s success in the red zone. Jackson rolled to his right, and as a 1,000-yard rusher, he of course drew the attention of defenders. Jackson eluded the rush and waited patiently as Brown, lined up on the left side, crossed the entire length of the field. Then Jackson led Brown with a pass to the back corner of the end zone that Brown secured for a 31-3 lead.

“In that condensed space, there’s a lot you’ve got to account for” defensively against Jackson, said Brown, who scored two touchdowns in this game and closed the season with six touchdowns in the final six games. “When [Jackson] is able to get out of the pocket, we’re able to run free, so he makes our job a lot easier.”

For his career, Jackson has been remarkably efficient in the red zone, with 46 touchdown passes and no interceptions in the red zone.

But when the Ravens have faltered, it has been because drives have stalled near the end zone. Jackson lost a fumble inside the 10-yard line in the home loss to Pittsburgh this year, and short field goals are often a recipe for trouble come playoff time.

Overall this year, the Ravens scored touchdowns on 63 percent of their red-zone trips. In the four losses in which Jackson played, their red-zone success rate was 43.8 percent. For a deep playoff run — or even a playoff win — the Ravens will need to produce when they get close, as they did on Jackson’s throw to Brown in this game.

3. The defense is getting healthy again, and just in time.

Even without No. 1 overall draft pick Joe Burrow, who is out for the season, the Bengals came into this game with momentum on the strength of two straight wins. They had piled up 37 points in a win against the Houston Texans a week ago. But the Ravens’ defense dismantled the Bengals from the start.

On their first three possessions, the Bengals totaled minus-3 total yards of offense, and they didn’t register a first down in the first 25 minutes. Backup quarterback Brandon Allen went 6-for-21 for just 48 yards, and the Ravens thwarted two potential touchdown chances with interceptions near the goal line, first by Marcus Peters and later by safety Chuck Clark.

Peters was playing for the first time in three weeks because of a calf injury, and the way he broke on the ball and secured the interception with one hand again showed how important his athleticism is in this secondary.

“We’re not done. We’re just getting started,” Peters said. “What we went through earlier made us to be where we’re at now, and it’s unified. We’ve got a goal, and the goal isn’t going to be complete until all of us get it done.”

The Ravens romped in this game without cornerback Jimmy Smith, who missed his third straight game, and without edge rusher Yannick Ngakoue, who missed his first game as a Raven with a thigh injury.

Head coach John Harbaugh said both those players might be able to return for the playoffs, and he said the team otherwise emerged from this game healthy. That bodes well for a defense that has endured its share of injuries throughout the long season, but still managed to rank in the top-10 overall.

4. Chris Board and Anthony Averett make this defense deeper and better.

Early in the second quarter, when the game was still somewhat in doubt, Bengals quarterback Brandon Allen lofted a pass down the left sideline for running back Giovani Bernard. Linebacker Chris Board ran step for step with Bernard and angled the back right out of bounds before the ball got there for an incompletion.

Later, cornerback Anthony Averett made a quick break on a ball and tipped away a pass for one of his two passes defensed, though he jumped up and down thinking about the potential for an interception return touchdown.

Still, those plays underscore how this defense has gotten stronger over the last half of the season. Board has primarily been a special teams player in his first three NFL seasons, but his defensive role has expanded during the past month. He had two sacks in the win against the New York Giants last week, and his coverage of Bernard showed how he can contribute in pass defense, too. It’s not hard to see him following the arc of Jameel McClain, Zach Orr, Patrick Onwuasor and other undrafted inside linebackers to become major defensive factors later in their Ravens tenure.

Averett has filled in well as injuries ravaged the once-deep secondary. Averett himself missed five games because of injury earlier this year, but he has played a valuable role lately with both Marcus Peters and Jimmy Smith hobbled by injuries. Averett finished the season with 27 tackles, including 16 in his past four games. He probably goes back to a reserve role if the Ravens are fully healthy for the playoffs, but the Ravens have to love his progress throughout the final month of the season.

The emergence of both Board and Averett increase the flexibility and the depth of the Ravens’ defense, a nice development with the postseason looming.

“They’ve been stepping up, playing big-time football,” safety Chuck Clark said.

5. The playoff mentality of the past month gives this year a different feel.

At this time last year, the Ravens had won 12 games in a row and eased into the playoffs by resting starters in Week 17 with their No. 1 AFC seeding secure. They knew a first-round bye awaited.

This year, the Ravens have been in playoff mode for more than a month, knowing any loss would most likely scuttle their postseason hopes.

“We had to earn it and go get it,” Clark said, adding that since falling to 6-5 with a loss at Pittsburgh. “We knew that every game was a playoff game. … We knew the magnitude of each game.”

Granted, Lamar Jackson’s sprint-from-the-locker-room, fourth-down touchdown pass at Cleveland might have saved the season, but the Ravens have been dominant for a month now. Even though that 2019 team ended on a 12-game winning streak, the momentum of this team feels different. The sense of urgency has been different.

And of course, the schedule will be different. Instead of resting up and watching the first round of the postseason, the Ravens will be hitting the road to face the Titans, who ignomiously bounced them from the playoffs in a stunner last season.

This is a dangerous team now, in a different way than last year’s was, and John Harbaugh’s team has a long history of postseason success on the road. Jackson’s 0-2 playoff record is sure to be the defining narrative this week, but no team can feel too comfortable seeing the Ravens coming to town the way they are playing right now.

Photo Credit: Kenya Allen/PressBox

Bo Smolka

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