OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Asked about Sunday’s showdown between the Ravens and San Francisco being a potential Super Bowl preview, safety Earl Thomas offered an answer that raised some eyebrows.
“You think the 49ers are going to the Super Bowl? It could be, let’s see,” Thomas said. “We just go out there and try to play the best football we can possibly do. When the Super Bowl comes, whoever we play, they’re going to be in trouble.”
To describe the latter part of his answer as a Joe Namath-like guarantee would be a bit much since Thomas was directly asked about a contrived narrative, but the six-time Pro Bowl selection knew exactly what he was saying. It’s the kind of bravado reminiscent of a previous era of Ravens football, something that’s dissipated — at least in terms of expressing it to reporters — over the course of the John Harbaugh era. A 12th-year head coach who prefers his players to do their talking on the field probably didn’t love Thomas’ words, but we’re also discussing a team that has won seven in a row and outscored its last five opponents — four of them owning a combined 32-12 record — by an absurd 140 points.
The 10-1 49ers indeed present Baltimore’s greatest remaining regular-season challenge on paper, but similar thoughts were expressed about Seattle, New England, Houston, and the Los Angeles Rams and we saw how those meetings played out. Yes, the NFL has a way of humbling a team when it starts believing its own hype — we’ve also mentioned that a few times in recent weeks, haven’t we? — but the Ravens are in the midst of the most dominant all-around stretch in franchise history with a record-setting offense and an ascending defense that’s played as well as any in the league since mid-October.
All eyes should be on Sunday’s clash with San Francisco, but the best team in the NFL is allowed to have some extra swagger and should possess an unapologetic urgency to win the Super Bowl, which is what makes Thomas’ answer so refreshingly honest. Maintaining their current intensity level could be a challenge as the Ravens move into December with five regular-season games to go and even an 89.5 percent chance to secure a first-round bye, according to Football Outsiders. Chasing the Patriots for home-field advantage throughout the postseason will help, but it’s human nature to wonder if the Ravens can maintain this same edge after embarrassing quality opponents for the better part of the last six weeks.
Two months ago, the popular sentiment was that the Ravens were probably another year away from being a top-tier Super Bowl contender, but Lamar Jackson emerging as the clear MVP favorite has drastically altered expectations. And while it’s fun for observers to get ahead of themselves and ponder whether Harbaugh and Jackson might become the next Bill Belichick and Tom Brady as the Ravens reap the benefits of having a franchise quarterback on a rookie contract, not even that first championship is guaranteed.
Consider how quickly the fortunes of the Sean McVay-Jared Goff pairing have soured as the Rams went from being the NFC’s young darlings to a team with real roster and salary cap concerns. For a more historical example, Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Marino was NFL MVP and led 14-2 Miami to the Super Bowl in his second season before losing to Joe Montana and the 49ers and never getting back to the sport’s pinnacle game.
We often speak of a team’s championship window like there’s a gradual progression, but it often slams shut prematurely for any number of reasons, ranging from injuries and bad luck to poor roster management and coaching changes.
A veteran like Thomas has won a Super Bowl and understands how difficult it is to do after Seattle lost its bid to repeat and hasn’t been back to even an NFC championship game since then despite still having one of the league’s best quarterbacks in Russell Wilson. Marshal Yanda probably figured he’d have another real shot or two at a championship playing with a quarterback who was the Super Bowl MVP, but the Ravens won only one more playoff game with Joe Flacco at the helm and have since reset to give the seven-time Pro Bowl guard another title opportunity with the electric Jackson now leading the way.
The time is now for the Ravens to seize a championship opportunity. That’s why you can’t blame Thomas’ bravado and extra desire to speak a Super Bowl into existence despite the game itself still being more than two months away.
Motion sickness (for opposition)
The Ravens have used the most pre-snap motion in the NFL with ESPN taking an interesting look at what this has meant for the league’s top-ranked scoring and rushing offense.
Offensive coordinator Greg Roman was asked Friday about why he prefers using so much pre-snap movement and the challenge it presents to an opposing defense.
“Do we use motions? Oh yeah, we do, don’t we?” said Roman as he smiled. “I mean it depends what defensive call they have on. Different shifts and motions can certainly impact each differently. Then you end up with, as you look at an entire game, if you take every defensive call, every offensive call, every shift, every motion and you multiply them by the possibilities of adjustments, you’re looking at a lot of adjustments. We do what we do, and whatever happens, we’ll let the chips fall where they may. There certainly has to be some adjustments being made, and they can be very simple adjustments or very complex. Really and truly, some of them are more important than others, but I’m going to kind of keep those to myself.”
If that sounds confusing, imagine having to prepare for it. Such tactics were often described in the past as little more than smoke and mirrors, but the substance the Ravens bring behind that pre-snap movement continues to overwhelm defenses.
Wet Week 13?
The Weather.com forecast for Baltimore on Sunday calls for rain, temperatures reaching the high 40s, and winds 10 to 15 miles per hour with rainfall expected to be around half an inch.
That precipitation could complicate matters for an offense that uses the shotgun or pistol formation 95 percent of the time and will have rookie free agent Patrick Mekari making his first NFL start at center. The Ravens offense addressed that potential challenge by practicing with wet footballs during Thursday’s practice.
“We got some really good work with that,” Roman said. “Really, [the rain] affects the footing obviously for every player on the field. That can work as a positive or a negative to anybody really. I don’t think it’s specifically harder on the defense. People like to say that, but it really requires you to play in balance throughout the game, getting in and out of cuts, that kind of thing. You have to make sure your footwear is correct.
“But really, it comes down to being great with the ball-handling. That’s where you really [see] the impact of the game. You have to really focus in on the ball-handling.”