On imperfect day, everything still falls into place for Ravens

December 02, 2019 | Luke Jones

The weather was miserable.

The defense allowed its first opening-drive touchdown of the season and its highest rushing total since Week 4, the last time the Ravens actually lost a game.

The Baltimore offense produced its season low for points while Lamar Jackson lost a fumble for the first time since January and produced his lowest passing yardage total of the season.

Sunday felt far from perfect as the Ravens trailed in a game for the first time since before Halloween, yet they still beat the best team in the NFC. And they went to bed Sunday night knowing they now occupy the top spot in the AFC and control their path to securing home-field advantage throughout the playoffs for the first time in team history.

The 20-17 win over San Francisco was both a commentary on the 49ers being a dangerous adversary and how our expectations have changed watching the Ravens play nearly flawlessly over the previous six weeks. Beating a 10-1 opponent by any means and score should be celebrated unconditionally, but perceptions are warped when you’ve beaten the previous five opponents — four of them with winning records — by an average margin of four touchdowns, leaving some to ask a question or two about what happened after the grind-it-out win.

The truth is this was as valuable a victory for John Harbaugh’s team as any this season in how it relates to the big picture. The Ravens earned an abundance of style points in recent weeks and have really tested conventional thinking, but we know winning in the NFL isn’t easy. That’s a lesson that probably doesn’t need to be reiterated to the likes of Marshal Yanda, Earl Thomas, or Jimmy Smith at this point, but there were just enough mistakes on each side of the ball Sunday for the coaching staff to have the attention of anyone who might have been feeling a little too invincible after winning the previous three games by a combined 109 points.

You’re unlikely to see many plays from Sunday’s performance in Jackson’s 2019 highlight reel — other than his juke on 49ers cornerback K’Waun Williams that left Ravens defensive tackle Brandon Williams to “hope his ankles are OK” after the game — but the 22-year-old again played like an MVP when it mattered, going 3-for-3 for 27 yards and picking up two critical first downs on short-yardage runs on the final drive. After the game, Jackson said the cold, rainy weather messed with him “a lot” as a passer and he was still angry about the third-quarter fumble that threatened to swing the game in favor of the 49ers, but the ball remained in his hands whenever the Ravens needed a play against a tough San Francisco defense that was determined to hit the young quarterback hard and often. He rushed for over 100 yards for the fourth time this year, an NFL single-season record for a quarterback.

Sunday was also a reminder of what the Ravens still have in their back pocket despite not needing them as often this season. The light workload for veteran punter Sam Koch has served as a punchline for weeks, but his 61-yard punt pinned the 49ers back at their own 1 late in a third quarter that had featured Jackson’s fumble, a long San Francisco drive that ended with a field goal to tie the game at 17, and another Baltimore series that had stalled.

Then, there was Justin Tucker making his 15th career game-winning field goal. Attempting such a high-leverage kick from 49 yards away in those conditions, many kickers would probably hope for it be a coin flip. But Tucker again showed why he’s the NFL’s best, even if he’s kicking more extra points than field goals these days.

The Ravens now find themselves in the top spot via their head-to-head tiebreaker win over New England in Week 9. Baltimore will be favored to win each of its final four games to close the regular season. But a tweet from retired linebacker and current director of player engagement Jameel McClain late Sunday should resonate after the Ravens won their eighth straight game, their longest ever regular-season stretch.

Sunday showed the Ravens don’t need to be at their best to beat a top-tier opponent, a terrifying proposition for the rest of the NFL. But the narrow win reiterated that it won’t be easy the rest of the way.