With biggest December win in years, Ravens can now be called contenders

December 23, 2018 | Luke Jones

The plot points were there for the same old story to play out for the Ravens on Saturday night.

They had dominated the Los Angeles Chargers in the first half, but an offense that had produced 223 yards — 119 on the ground — netted only six points by halftime after going 0-for-3 inside the red zone.

Lamar Jackson’s 68-yard touchdown pass to fellow rookie Mark Andrews and Justin Tucker’s 56-yard field goal created a 16-10 lead with just over 20 minutes to play, but the Ravens would go three-and-out on their next three possessions, gaining a total of eight yards. That newfound formula of running the ball and controlling the clock was nowhere to be found as the first 10 rushes of the second half produced only 21 yards and the Ravens possessed the ball for less than 12 minutes.

When Sam Koch’s punt from his own end zone was returned 24 yards by Desmond King to the Baltimore 39, the stage was set for eight-time Pro Bowl quarterback Philip Rivers on a short field with three minutes to go. A defense that had dominated throughout the night would need one more stop to keep the Ravens’ playoff hopes alive.

We knew how this movie ended in Pittsburgh on Christmas two years ago and against Cincinnati last New Year’s Eve, not to mention other late-game failures that have factored into the Ravens missing the playoffs in four of the last five years. Only two weeks ago, a fourth-and-9 miracle from Patrick Mahomes to Tyreek Hill with under two minutes to go thwarted an upset bid in Kansas City.

Another commendable effort with a “yeah, but…” attached.

“We’ve had our backs to the wall all year,” head coach John Harbaugh told his team in the post-game locker room in Carson, California. “For whatever reason, we’ve been fighting our ass off, but we haven’t been able to punch through.”

Those words came after linebacker Patrick Onwuasor punched the ball out from future Hall of Fame tight end Antonio Gates and slot cornerback Tavon Young returned the fumble 62 yards for a touchdown to give the Ravens a 22-10 lead. Several plays later, top corner Marlon Humphrey sealed Baltimore’s biggest December win in years with an end-zone interception.

The rookie Jackson and a unique run-heavy offense have understandably dominated the headlines since the bye week, but a top-ranked defense pressured Rivers relentlessly with four sacks and eight quarterback hits, held Pro Bowl running back Melvin Gordon to 54 total yards, and bottled up Keenan Allen and other Chargers receivers in coverage. It was as dominant as a Ravens defense had looked in a critical game — for a full 60 minutes — in a long, long time.

And with that victory, the Ravens can now be considered contenders — while understanding they still need to take care of business next week. It was nearly 10 years ago to the day that the Ravens and a rookie quarterback visited the favorite Dallas Cowboys needing a Week 16 win to keep their playoff hopes alive. That team won and was playing in the AFC Championship four weeks later. The Ravens will hardly be Super Bowl favorites if they do qualify for the playoffs for the first time since 2014, but taking the mighty Chiefs to overtime in Kansas City and dominating the Chargers — considered the latest darling in the AFC — will force teams to take notice.

What perhaps made the win more impressive was how far from perfect the Ravens were. Chargers head coach Anthony Lynn deemed it a “miracle” that his team even had a chance at the end after being “outcoached” and “outplayed” on Saturday night. The Ravens never got into their second-half formula that’s worked so well while winning five of the last six games, but Jackson’s beautiful touchdown strike came moments after the game appeared to be slipping away with Kenneth Dixon’s fumble and a quick Los Angeles touchdown to start the second half.

Yes, the offense should have done much more in that first half, making for a glass half-empty or half-full proposition. But the defense did it all, flashing a championship quality that’s been absent from the good statistical units of recent years by slamming the door on the Chargers’ final opportunity.

It’s a group composed of notable names still productive but past their prime, a Pro Bowl inside linebacker whose greatness is still debated, a potential future star in Humphrey, and a number of solid-to-good players who complement each other well. Defensive coordinator Wink Martindale has deployed that depth so effectively as Rivers — a future Hall of Famer arguably having his best season — became Baltimore’s latest victim on Saturday.

How far might the Ravens be able to go in January?

That question should wait another week, but their biggest victory in years spoke for itself on Saturday night. Anything is possible after changing the ending for which we all were bracing as Onwuasor stripped the ball and Young scooped and scored.

“We’re still not punched through,” added Harbaugh in his post-game speech, referring to next week’s tricky contest with Baker Mayfield and a much-improved Cleveland team. “We’ve still got one more win to get punched through.”

The difference is you now expect the Ravens to do it.