Ravens use effective road formula to stay in playoff position

December 17, 2017 | Luke Jones

The Ravens beating 0-14 Cleveland was never going to bring any earth-shattering developments beyond the possibility of a serious injury to a key player.

Only an unthinkable loss jeopardizing their playoff chances would have spawned a major headline.

The Browns again showed Sunday why they’re the worst team in the NFL, but Baltimore did what was necessary to remain in the driver’s seat for an AFC wild-card spot with two games remaining. In the 27-10 victory, the Ravens forced four turnovers, played superb special teams, and turned in another solid offensive performance to continue that encouraging late-season trend.

Despite some angst from fans reluctant to embrace a team with just one win against opponents currently holding a winning record, Baltimore didn’t come close to becoming the first team to lose to the hapless Browns, after all. And two home wins against opponents with a combined 8-20 record will result in the first trip to the playoffs since 2014.

Rebounding from last week’s awful performance in Pittsburgh, the Ravens defense intercepted two passes and forced and recovered two fumbles to take the NFL lead from Jacksonville with 33 total takeaways. Questions understandably will persist about this unit’s performance against better offenses and better quarterbacks, but forcing turnovers on the road will be a key part of the formula for any potential run in January. Baltimore had a whopping 15 takeaways in its four road wins this season.

Nearly as important as those turnovers was the offense’s ability to protect the football on the road yet again. The Ravens committed no turnovers Sunday and had no more than one in six of their eight away games this season. Baltimore also has just one giveaway over the current three-game offensive surge.

It’s no secret that Joe Flacco and the passing game have been more aggressive — and productive — in recent weeks, but that change in mindset does little good if accompanied by carelessness with the football. Flacco threw for a season-high 288 yards against the Browns and has now been intercepted only once over the last four games.

An offense scoring points is paramount, but taking care of the ball gives you a chance, especially when lacking an abundance of playmakers.

Sunday also offered a reminder of how brilliant punter Sam Koch has been this season — and for a long time — as he dropped three punts inside the 5-yard line and two on back-to-back drives in the third quarter. That field position led to Za’Darius Smith’s strip-sack of DeShone Kizer and Brandon Williams’ recovery for a touchdown that gave the Ravens a 24-10 lead that wouldn’t be challenged again.

Punting is an underappreciated skill because of its direct association with offensive failure, but Koch has been an incredible asset for a team that’s so frequently depended on field position and the success of its defense this season. The 12th-year veteran may never be viewed as the biggest reason for any single victory, but the cumulative value he brings over the course of 16 games shouldn’t be dismissed.

The victory over the Browns netted the Ravens a 4-4 road record for the season, and that’s nothing to take for granted if you’ve been paying attention the last few years. John Harbaugh’s best teams were never particularly great away from M&T Bank Stadium, but a .500 away mark has often served as a benchmark for a postseason berth.

Bad road losses have contributed to the Ravens missing the playoffs in recent years, but they’ve managed to avoid those this year. In 2013, upset defeats at Buffalo and Cleveland contributed to a 2-6 road record and an 8-8 finish. Last year, it was an ugly loss to an eventual 5-11 New York Jets team in October that contributed to the Ravens having no margin for error while facing a brutal December schedule.

Say what you want about a team lacking a signature win against a projected playoff team, but the Ravens have only one bad loss — the Week 6 tilt against Chicago — on their résumé. Since mid-October, they’ve beaten the teams they were supposed to beat.

And that’s all they have to do at home these final two weeks, thanks to another clean road performance on Sunday.