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Ravens-Steelers: Inactives and pre-game notes

Posted on 29 December 2019 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — Few Ravens-Steelers games over the years have meant so little — at least on Baltimore’s side.

While John Harbaugh’s team has already clinched the top seed in the AFC, a first-round bye, and home-field advantage throughout the postseason, Pittsburgh needs a win over the Ravens and a Tennessee loss in Houston as the most feasible scenario to qualify for the playoffs as the No. 6 seed.

Ravens players and coaches have said all the right things by insisting that any game against their AFC North rival carries meaning, but Harbaugh is playing it safe with his top players by officially deactivating quarterback and MVP favorite Lamar Jackson, right guard Marshal Yanda, safety Earl Thomas, defensive tackle Brandon Williams, and left tackle Ronnie Stanley. Running back Mark Ingram was already ruled out Friday as he continues to recover from a left calf injury sustained in Week 16, but the Ravens have also deactivated tight end Mark Andrews, who missed most of the practice week with a minor right ankle injury suffered in Cleveland last week.

All 46 active players were suited up and going through pre-game warmups, but you’d have to assume Harbaugh will hold out or limit the snaps for at least a few more players in addition to the seven inactives. The starting offensive line during full-team warmups included James Hurst in place of Stanley at left tackle and Parker Ehinger at right guard in place of Yanda.

Making his first NFL start in three years, veteran quarterback Robert Griffin III was the first Ravens player on the field roughly two hours prior to kickoff. The 29-year-old has seen action in six other games this season, completing 12 of 17 passes for one touchdown and one interception. Rookie Trace McSorley will serve as Griffin’s backup after being a healthy scratch for the first 15 games of the regular season.

The Steelers will be without eight-time Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey (knee) and top running back James Conner (quadriceps), who were both ruled out on Friday. Even facing a Baltimore defense at less than full strength, those are challenging absences for rookie quarterback Devlin Hodges and a struggling Pittsburgh offense to overcome.

The ugly forecast in Baltimore calls for rain and temperatures in the mid-40s with winds five to 10 miles per hour and a 100-percent chance of preciptation, according to Weather.com.

Referee Bill Vinovich and his crew will officiate Sunday’s game.

The Ravens are wearing purple jerseys with black pants while Pittsburgh dons its white tops with yellow pants.

Below are Sunday’s inactives:

BALTIMORE
QB Lamar Jackson
RB Mark Ingram
S Earl Thomas
G Marshal Yanda
OT Ronnie Stanley
TE Mark Andrews
DT Brandon Williams

PITTSBURGH
RB James Conner
C Maurkice Pouncey
CB Artie Burns
LB Tuzar Skipper
OL Chukwuma Okorafor
TE Zach Gentry
WR Amara Darboh

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Ravens, Pro Bowl cornerback Marcus Peters reach contract extension

Posted on 28 December 2019 by Luke Jones

A critical component of the remarkable in-season transformation of the Ravens defense will be sticking around beyond the 2019 season.

Just 2 1/2 months after being acquired from the Los Angeles Rams, Pro Bowl cornerback Marcus Peters has agreed to a three-year contract extension worth $42 million and $32 million guaranteed, according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter. The deal runs through the 2022 season and makes Peters one of the eight highest-paid cornerbacks in the NFL in terms of both average annual value and guaranteed money, according to OverTheCap.com.

With the Ravens having endured numerous injuries in the secondary and ranking 25th in pass defense after Week 6, general manager Eric DeCosta sent disappointing inside linebacker Kenny Young and a 2020 fifth-round pick to the Rams for Peters. The move lacked the fanfare — or long-term risk — of Los Angeles’ decision to then trade two first-round picks and a fourth-round selection to Jacksonville for disgruntled Pro Bowl cornerback Jalen Ramsey, but Peters’ arrival brought immediate dividends for Baltimore, who has climbed all the way to seventh in pass defense entering Week 17.

Despite logging only two practices with the Ravens and flying across the country twice in less than three days, the 26-year-old returned a Russell Wilson pass 67 yards for a touchdown in his Ravens debut, a 30-16 win at Seattle. Peters also returned a pick for a score against Cincinnati in Week 10, giving him a league-leading three interceptions returned for touchdowns this season. The outspoken cornerback also preserved a 24-17 win in Buffalo with a fourth-down pass breakup in the final minutes of Week 14.

Pro Football Focus has graded Peters as the third-best cornerback in the NFL this season, an effort that resulted in the 6-foot, 197-pound defensive back being named to his third Pro Bowl earlier this month.

The financial commitment to Peters is the latest example of DeCosta and the Ravens subscribing to the analytics-minded approach of prioritizing coverage on the back end above all else defensively. Even with veteran Jimmy Smith scheduled to become a free agent, Baltimore has the cornerback trio of Peters, fellow Pro Bowl cornerback Marlon Humphrey, and slot man Tavon Young under control through at least the 2021 season while Pro Bowl safety Earl Thomas is signed through 2022 and fellow starting safety Chuck Clark is under contract through next season.

Having a reputation as a polarizing player both on and off the field prior to his arrival, Peters has been labeled a cornerback “savant” by defensive coordinator Wink Martindale and has fit in well with a defense that’s been one of the NFL’s best since the first month of the season.

Kansas City’s 2015 first-round pick out of Washington, Peters has the most interceptions (27) in the NFL by a wide margin over the last five seasons and is tied for fourth in the league with five interceptions this season. He’s also collected 52 tackles and 14 pass breakups in 15 games split between the Ravens and Rams in 2019.

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Baltimore Ravens running back Gus Edwards runs for a touchdown against the Houston Texans during the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Nov. 17, 2019, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Gail Burton)

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Ravens-Steelers: Five predictions for Sunday

Posted on 28 December 2019 by Luke Jones

A 12th win in a row would give the 2019 Ravens the first 14-2 record in franchise history, but there’s only one meaningful factor to monitor in Sunday’s regular-season finale against Pittsburgh.

That’s navigating 60 minutes of football without any injuries that could hinder a championship run.

Coaches and players have spoken all week about playing to win against their biggest rival, but John Harbaugh’s easy decision to rest MVP favorite Lamar Jackson, Marshal Yanda, Mark Ingram, Earl Thomas, and Brandon Williams tells you exactly how important this game is to Baltimore’s ultimate goal of winning the third Super Bowl in franchise history. It goes far beyond trying to eliminate an AFC North rival from playoff contention, setting additional regular-season records, or “maintaining momentum.” The threat of any top seed losing its edge or getting rusty is real, but that isn’t eliminated by simply playing Week 17 at full strength and doesn’t match any risk of losing a key player in a game lacking meaning.

It’s time to go on the record as the Ravens and Steelers meet for the 48th time in the regular season with Pittsburgh holding a 25-22 advantage as well as a 3-1 edge in playoff encounters. Baltimore is 13-13 against the Steelers in the Harbaugh era and seeks its first season sweep since 2015.

Below are five predictions for Sunday:

1. The Ravens will rest or limit more starters than the aforementioned names. Harbaugh hasn’t revealed additional plans for playing time beyond what he announced Monday, but you’d assume he’ll hold out other key players or at least limit their snaps. In Week 17 of the 2012 season, he deactivated Yanda, Ray Lewis, Terrell Suggs, Haloti Ngata, Anquan Boldin, and Bernard Pollard and limited the likes of Ed Reed, Joe Flacco, Ray Rice, Matt Birk, Torrey Smith, and Dennis Pitta to 16 or fewer snaps. Based on that as well as past preseasons, the Ravens can navigate a game with roughly 40 players.

2. Baltimore will set a new NFL record for rushing yards in a 16-game season. We saw Jackson’s impact on the run game from the moment he took the starting reins last year, so it’ll be interesting to see how productive the group is with Robert Griffin III at quarterback. The Ravens need 93 rushing yards to break the 1978 New England Patriots’ mark of 3,165, but they’re facing a Pittsburgh defense ranking third in the NFL at 3.7 yards per carry allowed. The volume of carries should still be there to set the record even if the Ravens average well below their season mark of 5.6 yards per rush.

3. JuJu Smith-Schuster will catch only his fourth touchdown of 2019. It was a quiet return for Smith-Schuster last week after a four-game absence due to a knee injury, but he provides a much-needed inside target for rookie quarterback Devlin Hodges and a sputtering Pittsburgh offense. Should the Ravens choose to limit Pro Bowl cornerback Marlon Humphrey’s playing time, there isn’t an attractive backup option to play in the slot, a position Baltimore struggled to fill early in the year after Tavon Young was lost for the season in August. That’s even more reason not to play Humphrey too much in this game.

4. Justin Tucker will make his longest field goal of the season. We know a record-setting offense has marginalized the kicking game this year, but it’s mind-blowing to think the best in the NFL and three-time Pro Bowl selection hasn’t even attempted a field goal from 50 yards or more since Week 2. Tucker has just one missed field goal — and two unsuccessful extra points — this season, but Sunday will feel like a throwback performance with the Ravens relying more on field position and the kicking game. Some rain could make it tricky, but Tucker will connect on a field goal from longer than 51 yards.

5. The Ravens will be held under 20 points for the first time all season in a 17-16 loss. I haven’t picked against the Ravens since October and don’t plan to again in January, but this game simply doesn’t matter and can only harm their Super Bowl aspirations in the event of a notable injury or two. Baltimore winning with backups against an ordinary Steelers team wouldn’t surprise me by any means, but expecting the same intensity and brand of Ravens football — even if it’s against Pittsburgh — with Jackson and other top players in street clothes on the sideline is a lot to ask in a game in which the opponent has everything to play for. It will be a competitive game with points at a premium, but we’ll come away reminded why Jackson is the easy choice as the league MVP this season.

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Baltimore Ravens tight end Mark Andrews (89) celebrates his touchdown against the San Francisco 49ers with teammate Mark Ingram (21) in the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Dec. 1, 2019, in Baltimore, Md. (AP Photo/Gail Burton)

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Ravens’ additional plans for regular-season finale remain unclear

Posted on 27 December 2019 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — John Harbaugh said earlier in the week that the Ravens would make further decisions regarding playing time for the regular-season finale, but the head coach revealed no new plans Friday.

Running back Mark Ingram (calf) was officially declared out on the final injury report for Sunday’s meeting with Pittsburgh, but the veteran was already part of Harbaugh’s announced list including quarterback Lamar Jackson, safety Earl Thomas, right guard Marshal Yanda, and defensive tackle Brandon Williams that would sit out against the Steelers. Having already locked up the No. 1 seed in the AFC, the Ravens seem likely to rest at least a few more key starters, but those decisions could be impacted by the availability of four others officially listed as questionable on the Week 17 injury report.

Teams must deactivate seven players on game days, but Baltimore could still rest additional starters or at least limit their playing time. In the 2012 regular-season finale in Cincinnati, the Ravens deactivated seven players, held out another injured player, and limited 10 other starters or key contributors to 16 or fewer snaps after wrapping up the AFC North championship the previous week. That’s the closest situation to this one that Harbaugh has faced in his 12 seasons as head coach.

“The injury things in terms of who can make it to the game and who can’t, we’ll factor that in,” Harbaugh said. “We’ll just have to factor all of that in between now and Sunday. I don’t really have any announcements to make beyond those guys [ruled out on Monday]. … We’ll just get to the game and see where we’re at and try to put our best team out there that we choose to have available.”

Pro Bowl tight end Mark Andrews (ankle) was officially listed as questionable after returning to practice on a limited basis Friday. He is just four receiving yards shy of breaking Todd Heap’s team record for most in a season by a tight end (855 in 2005), but Andrews wasn’t moving around all that much during the portion of practice open to reporters. He turned his right ankle in the fourth quarter of last Sunday’s win in Cleveland.

Cornerbacks Marcus Peters (chest) and Jimmy Smith (groin) were limited in practices this week while wide receiver Marquise Brown missed Friday’s practice with an illness, leaving them all questionable on the injury report.

Thomas didn’t practice all week and was officially designated as questionable despite Harbaugh already saying the seven-time Pro Bowl safety wouldn’t play against the Steelers.

Another situation to monitor will be the status of inside linebacker Patrick Onwuasor, who left the field early in Friday’s practice after what appeared to be an animated exchange with Harbaugh. The Baltimore coach wouldn’t comment on the details of what happened beyond describing it as “an internal matter.”

After focusing on individual drills and fundamentals work early in the practice week, Jackson ran the Ravens’ scout team in Friday’s workout as backup quarterback Robert Griffin III prepared to make his first NFL start in three years. It was quite the unique situation having the league MVP favorite playing the role of Steelers quarterback Devlin Hodges in practice.

“He looked good. It was a good look,” said Harbaugh as he laughed. “He made some plays.”

Needing a win over the Ravens and a Tennessee loss to Houston to secure the No. 6 seed in the AFC, the Steelers will be without Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey (knee) and starting running back James Conner (quad), who both missed the entire week of practice. Those absences won’t help a Pittsburgh offense that’s scored fewer than 20 points in five of its last seven games.

According to Weather.com, the Sunday forecast in Baltimore calls for rain and temperatures in the mid-40s with winds light and variable and a 70-percent chance of precipitation.

Below is the final injury report for Week 17:

BALTIMORE
OUT: RB Mark Ingram (calf)
QUESTIONABLE: TE Mark Andrews (ankle), WR Marquise Brown (illness), CB Marcus Peters (chest), CB Jimmy Smith (groin), S Earl Thomas (knee/hand)

PITTSBURGH
OUT: RB James Conner (quad), C Maurkice Pouncey (knee)

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Ingram “pretty sure” he’ll be ready to go for Ravens’ first playoff game

Posted on 26 December 2019 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — It’s a move Ravens running back Mark Ingram said he’d made “8 million times” before sustaining a non-contact injury on the first play of the fourth quarter in Cleveland last Sunday.

The Pro Bowl selection and 1,000-yard rusher went to the ground after a fake hand-off from quarterback Lamar Jackson and initially feared the worst before the diagnosis of what head coach John Harbaugh described as “a mild-to-moderate calf strain.” Ingram won’t play in the regular-season finale against Pittsburgh on Sunday, but he expressed confidence that he’ll be ready to go in top-seed Baltimore’s first playoff game two weeks from this weekend.

“I just did a step-back, and it just felt like somebody like kicked me or hit me in the back of my calf,” Ingram said. “I didn’t know if Lamar had cleated me when he ran by, but he didn’t. It just felt like somebody kind of popped a balloon in my calf. It was kind of scary, kind of nerve-wracking.

“You hear about that feeling a lot of times when guys do more serious stuff. I’m just happy that it wasn’t serious like that.”

Ingram was not wearing a walking boot on his left leg Thursday like he did when leaving the visitor locker room in Cleveland four days earlier, another positive development in his recovery.

Even if healthy, Ingram would have been unlikely to play against the Steelers with Harbaugh planning to rest several top starters in a game with no playoff implications for the Ravens. Winners of 11 straight games, Baltimore needs just 93 yards to set the new 16-game single-season record for rushing yards in a season currently held by the 1978 New England Patriots (3,165).

Top backup running back Gus Edwards is expected to start Sunday with rookie Justice Hill backing him up, but the 30-year-old Ingram believes the extra time to recover will allow him to be on the field for the divisional round. The former New Orleans Saint will be missing his first game for health reasons — he served a four-game suspension for violating the league’s performance-enhancing drug policy last year — since sitting out four games with a shoulder injury in 2015.

“I have confidence I’ll be ready to go,” Ingram said. “The team’s doing a good job, the training staff’s doing a good job [with] around-the-clock treatment and getting it ready to go. I’m pretty sure I’ll be ready to go for that first playoff game.”

Ingram wasn’t the only key player sitting out Thursday’s practice with an injury as tight end Mark Andrews (ankle) and safety Earl Thomas (knee/hand) were also absent. Harbaugh already said Thomas would be part of the list of key players including Jackson, right guard Marshal Yanda, and defensive tackle Brandon Williams who would rest in Week 17.

Cornerbacks Marcus Peters (chest) and Jimmy Smith (groin) were limited participants in Thursday’s practice.

Needing a win over the Ravens and a Tennessee loss at Houston as the most plausible scenario to sneak into the playoffs as the No. 6 seed, the Steelers will be without Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey (knee) and may not have top running back James Conner, who missed his second straight practice with a quad injury. Starting cornerback Joe Haden also missed Thursday’s practice with a foot injury.

Below is Thursday’s full injury report:

BALTIMORE
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: TE Mark Andrews (ankle), RB Mark Ingram (calf), S Earl Thomas (knee/hand), DT Brandon Williams (non-injury), DE Chris Wormley (non-injury)
LIMITED PARTICIPATION: CB Marcus Peters (chest), CB Jimmy Smith (groin)
FULL PARTICIPATION: CB Brandon Carr (non-injury)

PITTSBURGH
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: RB James Conner (quad), G Ramon Foster (non-injury), CB Joe Haden (foot), C Maurkice Pouncey (knee)
FULL PARTICIPATION: LB Mark Barron (non-injury), G David DeCastro (non-injury), DT Cameron Hayward (non-injury), TE Vance McDonald (non-injury), CB Steven Nelson (groin), OT Alejandro Villanueva (non-injury), LB T.J. Watt (non-injury)

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Ravens to rest Jackson, other veterans for regular-season finale

Posted on 23 December 2019 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — After clinching the No. 1 seed in the AFC, the Ravens will keep the expected NFL MVP and several key veterans out of harm’s way in the regular-season finale against Pittsburgh.

Head coach John Harbaugh announced quarterback Lamar Jackson, running back Mark Ingram, right guard Marshal Yanda, safety Earl Thomas, and defensive tackle Brandon Williams are among those who won’t play against the Steelers on Sunday. At least a couple others are expected to be added to that list this week as Ravens players return to the team facility on Christmas Eve.

With Jackson having already locked up the MVP award in the eyes of most as the only quarterback in NFL history to throw for 3,000 yards and rush for 1,000 in a single season, there was just no compelling upside to playing him compared to exposing him to even the slightest risk of an injury. For what it’s worth, more than three weeks lapsed from the 22-year-old’s final preseason snaps until Week 1 when he threw five touchdowns and produced a perfect passer rating.

Acknowledging the balance between resting players and keeping them sharp for what the organization hopes will be a long postseason run next month, Harbaugh is choosing not to expose his best players to even a small chance of injury in a game carrying no tangible value to Baltimore’s Super Bowl aspirations. The 12th-year head coach has never been in this position before, but he rested multiple starters in Week 17 of the 2012 season after the Ravens had clinched the AFC North division championship the previous week and had only a small chance to move up from the fourth spot to the No. 3 seed in the playoff field.

“I talked to a few guys on the plane. Marshal was the main guy that I had some time talking to about it,” Harbaugh said. “I feel confident that everybody is on board. I talked to the coordinators, assistant head coach [David Culley], and [director of football research] Scott Cohen was involved in that today.

“It was pretty straight forward. It’s not really hard. It’s not a hard decision really if you really sit back on it and think about it. It’s a solid decision.”

Veteran backup Robert Griffin III will start at quarterback against the Steelers, but Harbaugh left open the possibility of rookie sixth-round pick Trace McSorley also seeing playing time.

Though many pundits and fans are referring to Sunday’s game as a glorified preseason game from the Ravens’ perspective, Harbaugh doesn’t have the luxury of a 90-man roster to navigate 60 minutes of play like he does in August. With only seven players deactivated for games, many veterans will still see action, but you’d expect workloads to be eased for select starters.

“We’re very healthy, so that does bode well,” said Harbaugh, who added that the Ravens will play to win with all players active against the playoff-hopeful Steelers. “It will be an opportunity for some guys to play who have been inactive, so that’s a big plus for us. It gives some guys some experience, and we’ll just roll with it.”

Harbaugh acknowledged there being merit to the other side of the debate suggesting a team already holding a first-round bye is in danger of losing its edge with too long a layoff from live-game action. It’s a fair concern that can become a self-fulfilling prophecy without taking the proper measures, but the practice schedule, mental preparation, and how players take care of their bodies over the next couple weeks carry more weight than playing an arbitrary numbers of snaps — and risking injury — in an inconsequential game that’s still two full weeks before the divisional round. In other words, there’s still much time to collect rust if you’re not managing those other variables wisely, no matter how you handle the Week 17 game itself.

Harbaugh confirmed all healthy players will practice this week and during the bye.

“Our goal is to be the very best football team we can become for that divisional game,” Harbaugh said. “We have a number of practices between now and then, and we have to make the most of every practice, every rep, every meeting, everything we do to be a much better football team than we are right now.”

If the Ravens were unsure how to handle the regular-season finale, seeing Ingram exit with a left calf injury early in the fourth quarter of Sunday’s win in Cleveland probably ended the debate.

Harbaugh described the results of Ingram’s MRI as “good news” after the Pro Bowl running back suffered the non-contact injury, but his status will be one of the major questions going into the postseason. Second-year running back Gus Edwards and rookie Justice Hill will handle greater workloads against Pittsburgh, but the Ravens remain hopeful that Ingram will be ready for the second weekend in January.

“He has a mild-to-moderate calf strain, so he won’t play this week,” Harbaugh said. “He probably wouldn’t play this week no matter what the circumstance was with that calf strain. We’d be looking for him to be ready in two weeks, so we’ll see how that goes going forward.”

2020 opponents revealed

With first place in each of the four AFC divisions now decided, the Ravens’ slate of 2020 opponents has been finalized.

Already scheduled to play the entire AFC South and NFC East divisions next season, Baltimore officially learned it will host AFC West champion Kansas City and travel to AFC East-winning New England.

HOME: Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Jacksonville, Tennessee, Dallas, New York Giants, Kansas City

AWAY: Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Houston, Indianapolis, Philadelphia, Washington, New England

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Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson (8) scrambles against the Cleveland Browns during the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Dec. 22, 2019, in Cleveland. The Ravens won 31-15. (AP Photo/Ron Schwane)

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Twelve Ravens thoughts following Week 16 win at Cleveland

Posted on 23 December 2019 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens clinching the AFC’s top seed and home-field advantage in the playoffs for the first time in team history in a 31-15 win over Cleveland, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. The turning point of Sunday’s victory was the 14-0 run over the final 78 seconds of the first half, but the defense forcing a three-and-out between those two touchdown drives without cornerbacks Marcus Peters and Jimmy Smith on the field was enormous.

2. I saw a little Ben Roethlisberger in Lamar Jackson’s second touchdown pass in which he evaded pressure in the pocket and then muscled an end-zone throw to Mark Andrews. His speed and agility are givens, but Jackson doesn’t get enough credit for his strength.

3. Jackson recorded his fifth 100-yard rushing game of the season — equaling the total produced by all Ravens players from 2015-17 — and now owns the ninth 1,200-yard rushing season in franchise history. Not bad for a quarterback.

4. The Baltimore run defense has been fairly scrutinized despite a shiny ranking in yards per game allowed, but it answered the bell holding Nick Chubb to 45 yards after he embarrassed the Ravens in Week 4. The dime package sometimes springs leaks against the run, but not this week.

5. The decline of the ground game was a major part of the post-Super Bowl XLVII era with the Ravens producing only one 1,000-yard rusher — Justin Forsett in 2014 — over six seasons. To now have only the seventh 1,000-yard rushing duo in NFL history with one being their quarterback is remarkable.

6. You never want to see fumbles, but it really is amazing that miscues at the mesh point between Jackson and Mark Ingram have been so rare this season. John Harbaugh will now hope his team got that seemingly overdue sloppiness out of its system after a season-high three fumbles.

7. On a day when the defense had some trouble getting off the field due to several drive-extending penalties, Chuck Clark was credited with four pass breakups to continue his breakout season. Two of those breakups came on Cleveland’s final three-and-out of the first half.

8. Mark Andrews is three receiving yards shy of Todd Heap’s single-season team record for a tight end, but a tender ankle could impact his Week 17 status. He may need to settle for becoming the third Raven to catch 10 touchdowns in a season, joining Michael Jackson and Torrey Smith.

9. Ingram will have nearly three weeks to recover from a left calf strain, but Justice Hill scoring his first NFL touchdown should provide a confidence boost if the Ravens need to lean on the rookie a little more in the postseason. The fourth-round pick’s opportunities have been limited.

10. L.J. Fort having two interceptions wiped away by a penalty and a replay review prompted me to look up whether he’d ever picked off a pass. His only career interception came in his first NFL game seven years ago — in Cleveland. Quite the coincidence that likely prompted some memories.

11. We know the 2019 Ravens’ legacy will ultimately be defined in the postseason, but Football Outsiders ranks them very favorably among the greatest regular-season teams of the last 35 years. Knowing the best team doesn’t always win the Super Bowl, remember to enjoy the journey — even as the favorite.

12. We place such importance on the postseason while oddly marginalizing it in the record book. That’s why I had bristled some over this year’s team being recognized as having the longest winning streak in franchise history when the 2000 Ravens won 11 in a row overall. They’re now even.

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Road dominance allows Ravens to take home path to potential Super Bowl

Posted on 22 December 2019 by Luke Jones

There was the “Mile High Miracle” and gratifying redemption against Brady and Belichick in Foxboro seven years ago.

Long before that, the Ravens won a bloodbath in Nashville and silenced the “Black Hole” on the way to their first Super Bowl championship.

There’s no shortage of playoff memories for a franchise with two NFL titles, 12 playoff appearances, and 15 postseason victories over the last two decades, but the overwhelming majority — all but six of 24 playoff games — have taken place somewhere other than Baltimore. The Ravens embraced that role of the underdog road warrior the top contenders didn’t want to play in January despite owner Steve Bisciotti lamenting the lack of home playoff games over the years.

Times have certainly changed as MVP favorite Lamar Jackson and the Ravens clinched the AFC’s top seed and home-field advantage for the first time in team history with a 31-15 win over Cleveland on Sunday. If we’re being honest, you’d probably like the Ravens’ chances against anyone at home, on the road, or even on Mars with the sensational Jackson at the helm right now, but the thought of needing to win only two home games to get to the Super Bowl is uncharted territory for this franchise.

Owning the league’s second-best home record since 2000, the Ravens always understood they needed to win more on the road in the regular season to play at home in January, but that’s easier said than done most years. In 2019, they didn’t just beat a franchise-record seven of eight away opponents in the bite-your-nails, too-close-for-comfort fashion you usually see in the NFL this season; John Harbaugh’s team flattened them.

Consider Baltimore’s five road victories of 14 or more points, three away wins by 36 or more, and astonishing point differential of plus-159 on the road. Only New England and San Francisco have better point differentials over their entire schedule this season. Kansas City, a Super Bowl contender and the only other team in the AFC with a 7-1 road record, scored 87 more points than its opponents away from Arrowhead Stadium this season, a gaudy number that pales in comparison to that of the Ravens.

It’s just another example of the Ravens making something difficult look incredibly easy this season. Demolishing doormats like Cincinnati and Miami on the road is one thing, but to embarrass the defending NFC champion Los Angeles Rams by 39 points on a Monday night and to topple a playoff team like Seattle by two touchdowns cements your standing as the class of the NFL.

That’s why there was no reason for panic Sunday despite the Ravens surprisingly going scoreless on their first four drives for the first time all season and falling behind in a game for only the second time since October. Despite the Ravens seemingly playing one of their worst halves of the season, it was only a matter of time before they came alive with two Jackson touchdown passes to Mark Andrews in the final 78 seconds of the second quarter to turn a six-point deficit into a 14-6 lead at intermission. One of their patented half-quarter touchdown drives to open the second half gave Baltimore control of the game for good.

A 16-point road win feeling like a flawed performance reflects how special this team has been since that upset home loss to the Browns to conclude September. After eleven straight wins — six of those on the road — the standard has climbed to a level we haven’t seen in this team’s impressive 24-year history.

The Ravens are no longer that underdog road warrior and can’t claim any disrespect as they top power rankings across the country and enjoy 12 Pro Bowl selections. They also won’t have to hop on a plane to play a game again until the potential trip to Miami for Super Bowl LIV. Other contenders still don’t want to play them, but the difference now is any of those opponents — the Patriots, the Chiefs, or any other team in the AFC field — will have to come to M&T Bank Stadium as the underdog.

Baltimore hasn’t hosted the AFC Championship game since Johnny Unitas and the Colts beat the Oakland Raiders at Memorial Stadium on Jan. 3, 1971, but this city now has its best chance to finally host another one.

You can thank the Ravens’ dominance on the road for that home opportunity.

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Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson (8) hands off to running back Mark Ingram (21) during the first half of an NFL football game against the Houston Texans, Sunday, Nov. 17, 2019, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)

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Ravens-Browns: Inactives and pre-game notes

Posted on 22 December 2019 by Luke Jones

The records and honors continue to pile up for the NFL’s best team, but the Ravens have a simple objective in the penultimate game of the regular season.

A win over Cleveland locks up the top seed in the AFC and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, something the Ravens haven’t enjoyed in their accomplished history dating back to 1996. Topping the Browns would also give Baltimore its 13th win of the regular season, matching the 2006 team for the most in franchise history.

A victory is paramount, but the Ravens can continue to rewrite the record book Sunday as Pro Bowl quarterback Lamar Jackson is just one touchdown shy of setting a new franchise record for touchdown passes while running back Mark Ingram is 37 yards shy of giving Baltimore just the seventh 1,000-yard rushing duo in NFL history. Jackson and Ingram would be the first teammates to do that since DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart in Carolina in 2009.

As expected, Pro Bowl left tackle Ronnie Stanley is active and will start after missing the Week 15 win over the New York Jets due to a concussion. Stanley had been officially listed as questionable on the final injury report, but he was a full participant in practice all week, eliminating uncertainty about his status.

Reserve inside linebacker Chris Board (concussion) is also active after sitting out in Week 15.

There were no other surprises on Baltimore’s inactives list with an unusually healthy roster at this late stage of the season.

Browns defensive end Olivier Vernon (knee) is inactive for the sixth time in the last seven games, which doesn’t help a Cleveland front that’s already without suspended Pro Bowl pass rusher Myles Garrett. Tight end David Njoku was a healthy scratch for the Browns.

Sunday’s referee is Alex Kemp.

According to Weather.com, the Sunday forecast in Cleveland calls for sunny skies and temperatures reaching the high 40s with winds 10 to 15 miles per hour and no chance of precipitation.

The Ravens are wearing their white jerseys with black pants while the Browns don brown tops and brown pants for their home finale.

Sunday marks the 42nd all-time meeting between these AFC North teams with the Ravens enjoying a lopsided 30-11 advantage. Baltimore is 19-4 against Cleveland in the John Harbaugh era, but the Browns are aiming to salvage a disappointing season with their first season sweep of the Ravens since 2007.

Below are Sunday’s inactives:

BALTIMORE
QB Trace McSorley
WR Jaleel Scott
CB Anthony Averett
CB Iman Marshall
OL Parker Ehinger
DT Justin Ellis
G Ben Powers

CLEVELAND
DE Olivier Vernon
TE David Njoku
WR Taywan Taylor
S J.T. Hassell
OT Kendall Lamm
G Drew Forbes
TE Pharaoh Brown

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Ravens-Browns: Five predictions for Sunday

Posted on 21 December 2019 by Luke Jones

A Ravens win over Cleveland would tie the overall franchise record of 11 in a row in 2000, match the team record for wins in the regular season, and serve as a slice of revenge for the Browns’ upset victory in Week 4.

But Sunday is all about Baltimore clinching the top seed in the AFC and home-field advantage throughout the postseason for the first time in team history.

“We have to go play our best game, and then there are going to be rewards for that,” head coach John Harbaugh said. “But we have to go play our best game. We have to beat a very good football team, and that’s the challenge.”

It’s time to go on the record as the Ravens and Browns meet for the 42nd time in the regular season with Baltimore holding an overwhelming 30-11 advantage and a 19-4 mark in the Harbaugh era. Cleveland is seeking its first season sweep since 2007, which was also the last time the Browns had a winning season.

Below are five predictions for Sunday:

1. The Ravens will begin the game with scores on their first two drives. Baltimore has scored on its opening drive 10 out of 14 times this season and has failed to score on its first three possessions of a game only once, which was the Browns’ 40-25 win at M&T Bank Stadium in Week 4. A fast start would further deflate a Cleveland team that looked completely disinterested in last week’s loss at Arizona, but a lethargic beginning for the Ravens might energize the Browns enough in their home finale to make this one interesting. If the Ravens haven’t suffered a letdown to this point, why would you expect one now?

2. Nick Chubb will rush for 90 yards and a touchdown. The Ravens will point out how much their personnel has changed since Cleveland ran for a season-high 193 yards against them in Week 4, but the Baltimore run defense still ranks 22nd in yards per carry allowed and 21st in Football Outsiders’ efficiency metric. Despite ranking fifth in rushing yards allowed per game since they’re frequently holding big leads, the Ravens remain vulnerable on the edges, especially when playing in their preferred dime package. The Browns’ ground game is another reason why it’s critical for Baltimore to start fast.

3. Baltimore will crack 200 rushing yards for the eighth time this season. Mark Ingram needs 37 yards to give a team two 1,000-yard rushers in a season for the first time since Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams did it for Carolina in 2009. The Browns are giving up 4.9 yards per carry and surrendered 6.0 yards per attempt in the Week 4 meeting. Just 336 rushing yards shy of the NFL’s 16-game single-season record owned by the 1978 New England Patriots, the Ravens will put themselves within easy striking distance of that entering Week 17. The edge here is mental as much as it’s physical.

4. Lamar Jackson will throw two touchdown passes and run for another. The Pro Bowl quarterback needs one touchdown pass to set a new franchise single-season record. However, two more touchdown throws will put the 22-year-old with Steve Young (1994) and Cam Newton (2015) as the only players in NFL history to have 35 touchdowns passes and seven touchdown runs in a single season. Both won the MVP award in those years with Jackson looking like a slam dunk for that honor as well. Ideally, Sunday would be Jackson’s last action of the regular season, so he’ll finish with a strong showing.

5. A plus-two turnover margin will help the Ravens to a 34-16 win. Week 4 still serves as a reminder of the talent the Browns possess, but the strong culture in Baltimore that’s helped cultivate the brilliant start to Jackson’s career serves as a stark contrast to what’s happened in Cleveland with first-year head coach Freddie Kitchens seemingly in over his head and the talented Baker Mayfield regressing in his second season. Mayfield has thrown for over 300 yards in each of his first three games against the Ravens, but he’s also thrown a total of five interceptions in those meetings. Meanwhile, Jackson has only nine interceptions in his 21 career starts. Taking care of the football matters, and it will in this one as the Ravens improve to 13-2 and cement the No. 1 seed while the Browns clinch another losing season.

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