BALTIMORE — Sunday’s performance by the Ravens felt very familiar.
Joe Flacco and the offense turned in their best performance of the season against Detroit nearly a year to the day after they blew out Miami, a playoff contender turned away at M&T Bank Stadium to begin the final month of 2016. The 44-20 win over the Lions lifted the Ravens to 7-5, the same record they owned after their 38-6 victory over the Dolphins last Dec. 4.
Unfortunately, history repeated itself again when cornerback Jimmy Smith tore his Achilles tendon late in the first half, ending the best season of his career and leaving the defense without arguably its best player. It was Week 14 last year when the Ravens lost Smith to a high ankle sprain, an injury that torpedoed what had been the league’s top-ranked defense at the time.
That injury preceded three losses in the final four weeks as the Ravens missed the playoffs for the third time in four seasons. The schedule is certainly more favorable this time around with just one game remaining against a winning team — next Sunday in Pittsburgh — and the final two contests coming at home.
Still, there’s no underselling the loss of Smith, especially for a team that’s relied so heavily on its defense all season.
“It’s different than it’s been before,” said head coach John Harbaugh, citing his defense’s struggles without its top corner in 2014 and last year. “We have a lot of depth. We have a lot of good, young players. We’ll step up, and we’ll still play at a really high level in the secondary. I’m very confident of that.”
The Ravens are better equipped to carry on without Smith after signing reliable veteran Brandon Carr — who’s amazingly never missed a game in his 10-year career — and drafting the talented Marlon Humphrey in the first round this past spring. Turning over a starting job to Humphrey is quite an improvement from a year ago when Shareece Wright stepped in for Smith opposite rookie Tavon Young.
But there will still be some drop-off, evident by Humphrey’s difficulties in coverage against speedy Lions receiver Marvin Jones. The Alabama product may eventually be as good as Smith — or even better — but expecting that immediately would be unfair and unrealistic.
That makes it even more critical for this Ravens offense to look more like it did Sunday the rest of the way.
Veterans Terrell Suggs and Eric Weddle admitted after the game that the defense was feeling deflated after officially learning of Smith’s fate at halftime. Two touchdown drives orchestrated by Lions quarterback Mathew Stafford in the third quarter transformed a comfortable 20-0 lead into a one-possession game, but Flacco and the offense fought right back with a nine-play, 74-yard drive ending with a 7-yard touchdown run by Alex Collins to make it a 27-13 lead early in the final quarter.
Given the importance of the game and the way it was trending, that touchdown drive may have been the offense’s best and most important of the year to this point. The Ravens then answered a Stafford touchdown pass with another drive resulting in a field goal to put them up by multiple scores for good with 6:54 remaining.
“Well, we have to do our part at some point, right?” said wide receiver Mike Wallace, who finished with 116 yards on five catches. “The offense, we have to come up. Our defense has been incredible. Our special teams have been incredible. The offense, not so much.
“Today, we made strides. This game is about peaking at the right time, so hopefully we can do that.”
The convincing win tightened the Ravens’ grip on the No. 6 seed as they own a one-game lead as well as tiebreakers over the top three teams chasing them in the AFC wild-card race, but building on this performance will be of the utmost importance. Baltimore will be an underdog against the Steelers next Sunday night, but a good showing from Flacco and the offense for a second straight week would create more optimism about this team being able to make noise in January.
The defense should still be more than good enough that the Ravens won’t need to put 44 points on the board every week like they did Sunday, but any expectation of this unit continuing to carry an inept offense likely vanished as Smith collapsed to the ground with 4:21 to go in the second quarter. That unbalanced formula may still be good enough against a soft remaining regular-season schedule, but it certainly won’t fly in the playoffs.
Many saw that as the Ravens’ reality anyway, but losing an elite defensive talent brings it into sharper focus.
The offense stepped up to do the heavy lifting when the defense suddenly found itself on the ropes Sunday.
The coming weeks will determine whether that was merely an aberration or the start of the offense more consistently pulling its own weight.
The latter would make for a more interesting January.