The Baltimore Ravens return home on Sunday after their most impressive victory of the year. A 22-10 smothering of the Los Angeles Chargers and a Pittsburgh Steelers loss has lifted the Ravens to first place in the AFC North. On the cusp of making their first playoff appearance in three seasons, the Ravens take on the 7-7-1 Cleveland Browns in a game that has no bearing on the already eliminated Browns.
Since the Ravens bye week, the team has come together to win five of their past six contests and formed one of the scariest teams in the NFL. The quality of the roster was always there but the defense and offense failed to play at a consistently high level through their first nine games in 2018.
Baltimore’s first matchup in Cleveland was pegged as the ultimate trap game and it went exactly as predicted. The Browns collected their first win over Baltimore in three years and the Ravens fell to 3-2. Once again in a ‘win and you’re in’ scenario, this year’s Ravens need to get into the playoffs for the teams that have faltered the past two seasons.
A Win in the Season Finale Can Guarantee Baltimore Ravens Playoff Hopes
History Is Not on Baltimore’s side
The two most iconic moments of the past two Baltimore seasons have come at the expense of the Ravens. One of was the infamous Antonio Brown reach that gave Pittsburgh the AFC North title on Christmas day 2016 and the other was Tyler Boyd‘s New Year’s Eve fourth & 12 catch and run that dropped Baltimore to 9-7 last year in 2017. These two moments haunt Ravens fans and can only be softened if Baltimore is finally able to close out their regular season with a statement.
The closest comparison to one of these games was the Ravens Week 14 matchup against the Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead. Twice in the fourth quarter, Baltimore had the Chiefs on fourth down while only needing to keep them out of the end zone to win the game. Both times they converted, once for a touchdown and the Ravens ended up losing in overtime. The most defining play of the drive was a 48-yard fourth-and-9 pass to get KC into the red zone with 1:17 remaining in regulation. Awfully similar to Boyd’s 49-yard reception.
With all this late game choking the Ravens have endured the last couple seasons, they have a few instances to hold onto from the current season. In Jackson’s first start against the Cincinnati Bengals, Cincinnati had the ball at fourth-and-3 with just under two minutes left and the defense was able to step up and hold their 24-21 lead. Another instance comes from the Chargers game in which Philip Rivers had the ball with 2:55 left in the game and the Ravens clinging to a six-point lead. In the biggest game of the year, Patrick Onwuasor was able to force a fumble that Tavon Young would recover and take 62 yards to seal a Ravens victory.
A History of Choking Cannot Be Established
Throughout sports history, there are a certain number of teams whose most definitive characteristic is not being able to perform when it matters the most. Examples of these include the Chiefs, Washington Nationals, Tottenham Hotspur, and the San Jose Sharks. The Ravens may have won a Super Bowl just six years ago but the way they are trending, they have bombed out of the playoffs (or playoff contention) in mighty fashion since their triumph in 2013.
For whatever reason, this is not something that is easy to kick either. The Buffalo Bills famous four straight Super Bowl losses have haunted the franchise since 1994 and they are still without a playoff win in over 20 years. This kind of failure is special to a very small amount of teams but it can happen faster than expected and ingrain itself. Teams like the Minnesota Vikings have had their choking history follow them for decades. It seems that a very small amount is able to kick those habits as well. The most recent example is the Washington Capitals Stanley Cup victory after countless years with an extremely talented roster but failure to even reach a conference championship.
It’s hard to group Baltimore with any of these previously mentioned teams but setting a standard and precedent for a young rookie quarterback like Lamar Jackson is important. It’s not a coincidence the same quarterbacks seem to be in the playoffs for multiple years at a time.
Cleveland Will Not Be Overlooked
Baltimore’s final regular season game to qualify for the playoffs will come against the same opponent they beat in Week 17 to qualify in 2014 — the last time the Ravens got into playoffs. The game would finish 20-10 as Baltimore clinched the sixth seed and second wild-card spot. That Browns’ team was 7-8 at the time, eerily close the current 7-7-1 Browns.
In the Ravens first game against the Browns this season, Baker Mayfield had his first real good game of the year, as Cleveland pulled out a 12-9 overtime win. It was debatably the Ravens messiest game of the season but could’ve ended in many different ways. The game contained a dropped game-winning touchdown pass by Michael Crabtree, and a Browns missed extra-point, a missed game-winning field goal and a Ravens blocked field goal.
The Browns have improved dramatically since their October matchup with Baltimore and will give the Ravens all they can handle as they look to finish with their first winning record since 2007.
Last season, Baltimore was seen as the clear favorite against Cincinnati in the final game of the year, so much so that most of the talk was about who the Ravens would rather see in the first round. Despite the hype of a Chargers vs. Ravens rematch, Baltimore is focusing on winning Sunday and cannot think about the playoffs until leaving the M&T Bank Stadium turf. The Ravens know Cleveland has the ability to win Sunday.
The biggest factor in the Ravens upset of the Chargers was the Baltimore pass rush’s ability to get to the quarterback. Rivers was under pressure all game long and it allowed the Ravens corners to blanket their assignments with ease. It was the reason they were able to keep Patrick Mahomes off balance when they played the Chiefs and it will be a key to beating the Browns. In the Ravens Week Five game against Cleveland, they let Mayfield constantly escape the pocket and pick up large chunks of yardage because of it. Baltimore only registered two sacks on the day.
Once again, the pass rush is going to be the key to victory for Baltimore.