Much can change in a month in the NFL.
In November, the Ravens were building steam, but they were still thought of as an upstart Super Bowl contender, even after beating the previously unbeaten Patriots in Week 9, 37-20.
Fast forward to Week 13: By defeating the 49ers (10-2) on Sunday, Baltimore ran its winning streak to eight games. Six of the victories in that run are against teams that would make the playoffs if the season ended today. In a 28-22 loss at Houston on Sunday night, offensive woes finally seemed to catch up with the Patriots.
And so a conversation that once featured Baltimore as best hope to unseat New England (10-2) has suddenly shifted to the Ravens (10-2) as AFC Super Bowl favorite. “Don’t Look Now, But Lamar Jackson and the Ravens Are the NFL’s Top Team,” Albert Breer’s Monday Morning Quarterback column proclaims on the Sports Illustrated web site.
But let’s not anoint the Ravens as champs with four weeks left in the regular season and the playoffs set for January.
For starters, let’s not dismiss the supposedly moribund Pats. Because New England has dominated for so long, media and most fans are eager for any hint of decline. Yes, the Patriots’ passing game without Gronk is lacking, and Tom Brady is frustrated because of it. But we only need to look back at the 2018 season for how New England can overcome major in-season issues.
Last December, the Patriots lost back-to-back games to the Dolphins and Steelers. Focusing more on the ground game afterward, New England went on a run that was culminated by a bruising, 13-3 win over the Rams in the Super Bowl — a victory that’s a testament to Bill Belichick’s prowess at exposing the weaknesses in opposing offenses. (The effects of that loss surely lingered for the Rams in 2019.)
In fact, the entire Belichick/Brady dynasty is littered with examples of New England defusing offenses — like high-powered Baltimore’s — that befuddled the rest of the league. Since 2001, the Patriots are 13-9 in the playoffs against teams they faced in the regular season, with advanced analytics showing New England’s defense improves noticeably in the rematch. Ravens coach John Harbaugh has had success against the Patriots, but his track record doesn’t compare to Belichick’s.
And it’s not just the Patriots who should concern the Ravens, who have the inside track to the AFC’s top seed.
The Chiefs (8-4), who play at New England in Week 14, are finding their legs as the stretch run arrives. Quarterback Patrick Mahomes is fully healthy, perhaps presaging a second showdown with Jackson that would likely be the most hyped meeting of the postseason. In a tight contest when both quarterbacks were healthy in September, the Chiefs defeated the Ravens in Kansas City, 33-28. Perhaps a rematch at home would favor the Ravens, but they lost to the Chargers in a wild-card game in Baltimore last season — a reminder that playoff football can operate at a speed and intensity that often befuddles young passers like Jackson.
Mahomes, who dislocated his knee cap on a sneak against Denver in Week 7, can also serve as a cautionary tale for the Ravens. As thrilling as Jackson’s rushing exploits can be — he’s on pace to shatter the season rushing record by a quarterback — the specter of injury looms large.
Although Baltimore’s win over the 49ers is noteworthy, it also demonstrated how reliant the Ravens’ offense is on Jackson’s running ability when a good defense limits the rest of its attack. New England and Kansas City have had their cracks at the Ravens in the regular season, and doubtlessly learned something from the experience. Jackson, an MVP candidate and easily the story of the 2019 season, has made incalculable strides since his rookie season. But his evolution, and the league’s approach to him, are far from over.
Pro football’s dustbin of history is littered with teams who thought they had the world on a string the first week of December, only for things to unravel either in the postseason or the final weeks of the regular season. That isn’t to say the Ravens will inevitably succumb to one of those pitfalls. The team is almost certainly aware of them, and with a disciplined coach who has won a title before, that message will be conveyed frequently. The rest of us would do well to keep the same perspective in mind.