Flacco’s play on rise as Ravens grind closer to playoff spot

December 24, 2017 | Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — The Ravens were hardly impressive in their 23-16 win over Indianapolis.

Playing a three-win team in rainy and windy conditions at M&T Bank Stadium wasn’t exactly a recipe to earn style points on Saturday anyway, and there was much to pick apart from the performance.

The defense continued its up-and-down play since the season-ending injury suffered by Jimmy Smith in Week 13, missing too many tackles and failing to consistently pressure Colts quarterback Jacoby Brissett behind a decimated offensive line. The running game wasn’t much of a factor and averaged just 2.6 yards per carry in the fourth quarter before three kneel-downs to seal the win. Even the normally-superb special teams had a punt blocked late in the fourth quarter that could have cost the Ravens the game.

“We made a number of mistakes, starting with me,” said head coach John Harbaugh, citing his decision to decline a holding penalty before Indianapolis converted a fourth down in the final quarter. “Things that gave them a chance, especially in the fourth quarter. There are things that we have to get better at and work on.”

The Ravens will need a more complete performance next week to beat Cincinnati, an AFC North rival who’s winding down a disappointing season but has given them as much trouble as any team over the last few years. It only gets tougher after that if Baltimore does advance to the playoffs for the first time since 2014.

But the most encouraging trend of the last month continued Saturday as Joe Flacco turned in his fourth consecutive good performance. It’s no secret that the 10th-year quarterback is in the midst of one of the most trying seasons of his career, but he looks healthier and his play down the stretch has reflected that.

Despite the less-than-ideal weather conditions, Flacco completed 76.3 percent of his passes against the Colts and threw for 237 yards and two touchdowns without an interception. It was the fourth straight game in which Flacco has thrown for at least that many yards after doing so only once in the first 11 contests of 2017. He’s thrown seven touchdowns and just one interception over those four weeks, raising his season passer rating from 74.2 to 81.4. He’s making plays while protecting the football, the opposite of what we saw for much of the season.

It wasn’t perfect on Saturday as he lamented his bad misfire to tight end Nick Boyle near the goal line in the second quarter as well as the offense scoring just two touchdowns despite five 10-play drives of 50 or more yards. But this is the Flacco more closely resembling the quarterback who helped guide the Ravens to six playoff appearances in his first seven seasons.

“I just feel, as an offense, we’re starting to hit our stride,” said Flacco, who’s showing better mobility than we saw in the first half of the season after his summer back injury. “I’m playing more consistent. The receivers are getting open quick. The line’s playing really well together. The backs are running the ball really hard, and it’s good to come out of these games and have some things that we left out there but still a lot of things that we did well.”

Most impressive about Flacco’s rise has been him doing it with a less-than-ideal supporting cast. The Ravens are currently playing with one established NFL wide receiver in Mike Wallace, who recorded his fourth straight game with at least 60 receiving yards. Flacco’s scores went to two players — Michael Campanaro and Maxx Williams — who hadn’t caught touchdown passes in over two years.

The offensive line has improved since the bye week, but its season-long trials are hardly a secret.

And while Marty Mornhinweg deserves credit for his improved unit now scoring 23 or more points in six consecutive games, the offensive coordinator still makes some calls — particularly inside the red zone — that make you scratch your head.

Through all of this, Flacco has rebounded from his own struggles and is making it work.

Saturday’s clunky overall performance won’t raise anyone’s confidence level about the Ravens making a deep run in January, but they got the job done in the end and are now one victory away from the opportunity to roll the dice. And with Flacco now playing his best football of the season and owning a stellar track record in January, the Ravens will take their chances having won five of their last six.

“One good game, and we’re in,” said linebacker Terrell Suggs, referencing next week’s tilt with the Bengals. “If we win, we’re in. Everybody knows that second season, we become a different team — a special team.

“‘January Joe’ — we’re all looking forward to seeing him. Absolutely.”