Ravens offense finally provides real hope for stretch run

December 05, 2016 | Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — The Ravens had talked about the potential of their offense all season.

From John Harbaugh and Marty Mornhinweg to Joe Flacco and Mike Wallace, the word “close” had been uttered so many times in describing the unit’s pursuit of a breakout performance. But potential is meaningless without substance, especially when you’ve reached the month of December.

We’d seen decent stretches here and there this season, but never anything close to a full 60 minutes — not even in two wins over the lowly Cleveland Browns. That’s what made the 38-point, 496-yard explosion against the Miami Dolphins so uplifting on Sunday.

With three of their final four coming on the road — including games at New England and Pittsburgh — the Baltimore offense needed to prove it was capable of playing at such a high level after talking about doing it for months. Snapping Miami’s six-game winning streak in blowout fashion is one thing, but beating the Patriots in Foxborough would be another entirely.

It’s a task that appears more reasonable, however, after the Ravens’ highest scoring output in more than two years and their biggest margin of victory since 2012.

“I think it gives the guys a lot of confidence to see it and have done it,” Flacco said. “Now, we have to go up into a hostile place in New England that we really enjoy playing [at]. It’s going to be another important game in December up there.”

So, what was the difference on Sunday? After all, it’s not as though the Ravens offense just decided it would wait until Week 13 to magically shift into a higher gear. There was much discussion this week — including an animated debate between Mornhinweg and Flacco in the quarterbacks meeting room — about the offense needing to be more aggressive, but execution has to accompany that mindset.

The numbers didn’t lie on Sunday as Flacco turned in his best performance since Gary Kubiak was in charge of the offense two seasons ago, throwing for four touchdowns and 381 yards. His 36 completions were a single-game franchise record as he repeatedly carved up the middle of Miami’s zone defense.

“The guy who was throwing the ball,” wide receiver Steve Smith. “He was playing lights out. We go as he goes. When he does a great job, we all look better.”

The newfound stability of the offensive line has steadily made Flacco look better as well. Using the same starting five for the third straight week — the first time the Ravens could claim that since the first three games of the season — reaped the rewards of a clean pocket as a talented Miami front registered no sacks and just two quarterback hits on the day.

The offensive line paved the way for Terrance West and Kenneth Dixon to combine for 106 rushing yards on 16 carries, but it was the group’s work in pass protection that allowed Flacco to shine on Sunday. Eleven different Ravens caught passes with five registering at least 40 receiving yards.

“It starts up front. When he has time, he is a dangerous quarterback and we know that,” said tight end Dennis Pitta, who caught his first two touchdowns since Dec. 8, 2013. “We have a lot of weapons offensively and we always talked about the potential we have, but we weren’t quite there. Today, we recognized that potential and put it together.”

The Ravens hope this is the turning point for Flacco and an offense that’s underachieved all season. It had been far too long since we’d seen it, but Sunday reminded us how good the ninth-year quarterback is capable of being when he gets on a roll.

The timing couldn’t have been better with the Ravens likely needing to win three of their last four to secure a trip to the playoffs. This is the time of year when Flacco has often played some of his best football, and the Ravens will need him to be playing his best to prevail over Pittsburgh in the AFC North.

A trip to Gillette Stadium next Monday will provide a good indication whether the Week 13 performance was merely a tease of what many thought this offense could be in 2016 or the start of something exciting.

Were the Dolphins just that bad on Sunday or can the Ravens really be that good?

“We’ll see next week if it’s a launching point,” Smith said. “We want to say yes, but sometimes you guys discredit the other team.”