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The Upside of Unbalance

Coming into NFL Week 13, the Baltimore Ravens and Detroit Lions were lopsided phonies with winning records. On Sunday, they both looked like Super Bowl contenders.

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

Quick, think of “Super Bowl contenders” and see who comes to mind.

The Cowboys, the Patriots, the Raiders, the Seahawks, maybe the Chiefs, but probably not the Ravens or the Lions.

The Lions and Ravens (both plus-4000 as Super Bowl winners) may have come into Week 13 leading both of the NFL’s North divisions, but both feature glaring flaws. (In fact, as of Wednesday, Vegas was giving both the Steelers [plus-1200] and the Packers [plus-2500] better odds to win the Super Bowl than the teams they were trailing in their respective divisions.) For Detroit, whose offense that’s been able to pull victory from the jaws of a fourth-quarter deficit seven separate times, the ticking time bomb has always been its punchless, leaky defense, which put them in those situations in the first place. For Baltimore, whose physical, disciplined defense and top-tier special teams group have carried them all year, the inept offense has acted as a heavy anchor dragging on the seafloor.

Then something weird happened on Sunday: The Lions found themselves a defense, holding Drew Brees and the Saints’ high-octane offense in check, and the Ravens somehow discovered an offense against a very good Dolphins defense. It’s a one-game sample size, but if Week 13 is a sign of what’s to come for both squads, we’re going to have to take Detroit and Baltimore a lot more seriously down the stretch.

Detroit came into its matchup with New Orleans with the 31st-ranked defense, per Football Outsiders’ DVOA. It was giving up 256.6 passing yards a game (14th), had surrendered 22 touchdowns (tied for 27th), and was about to face an offense that came into the week leading the NFL in passing yards and passing touchdowns, and was second in points per game. You’ll forgive a panel of experts for all picking the Saints in this one (I did, too), but the Lions will not.

Despite this clear mismatch, Detroit held a team that had dropped 49 points on the Rams last week to just 13. The Lions flustered Brees all game long, picking him off three times and keeping him out of the end zone entirely. It was the first time in 61 straight home games that Brees failed to throw a touchdown pass, and the first time since December 28, 2014 that he’d been intercepted three times in a game. So where did this Lions defense come from?

It doesn’t hurt that Detroit’s offense chewed up 36-plus minutes of game clock, keeping Brees on the sideline for large swaths of time, but when the Saints offense was on the field, the Lions showed an incredible nose for the football. They knocked down seven passes (three by the defensive line), and with their safeties playing deep to limit downfield shots, the secondary sat back in their zones and read Brees’s eyes.

Midway through the third quarter, safety Glover Quin intercepted Brees when he tried to rifle a pass down the sideline to Brandin Cooks. Quin undercut the route and jumped high to grab it.

Before a third pick by Miles Killebrew with two seconds left ended the game, safety Tavon Wilson got in on the action. With 5:26 left in the game and the Lions leading 28–13, Wilson dropped into his zone near the sideline and also undercut a sideline route, picking a Brees pass meant for Willie Snead.

Defensive coordinator Teryl Austin’s squad started quickly, forcing three straight New Orleans punts to open the game, then finished strong, creating three second-half turnovers to bury the Saints. There was no magic fix to the issues that have plagued Detroit’s defense all year. Sure, the return of Darius Slay three weeks ago has been a boon to the secondary — the Lions picked off Blake Bortles twice in Week 11, and Slay grabbed an interception from Sam Bradford last week — and after missing three weeks to an ankle injury, Ezekiel Ansah seems to finally be rounding into form. He’s still yet to record a sack this year, though he had a team-high five pressures against the Jags and a strip-sack of Bradford last week that was reviewed and ruled an incomplete pass. But on Sunday, the Lions’ success came down to a smart game plan by Austin, which limited Brees’s ability to take deep shots, and disciplined play in the secondary. Incredibly, it was the first game all season that Detroit didn’t trail in the fourth quarter. They should try that more often.

The Ravens brought their 30th-ranked offense by DVOA into a matchup with Miami’s eighth-ranked defensive squad. It was fair to expect Baltimore to struggle: It came into the week tied for 24th in points, 29th in yards per play (5.0), tied for 30th in passing touchdowns (11), and 29th in yards per rush. But the Ravens came out shooting: Joe Flacco, whose 11-to-10 touchdown-to-interception ratio, 6.4 yards per attempt, and 80.4 rating coming into the game has been closer to Brock Osweiler’s level than anyone in Baltimore would like to admit, passed 34 times in the first half alone, tossing three touchdowns, and Baltimore’s offense didn’t punt until until well into the third quarter. Flacco added a fourth touchdown throw early in the final frame before he was pulled, already having connected on a franchise-record 36 passes. The Ravens ended the game with 28 first downs, 496 yards of offense, and 38 points.

The Ravens didn’t suddenly employ some new, exotic game plan or implement a brand-new scheme. They simply executed, and tight end Dennis Pitta was a huge beneficiary in their crisp passing game. Late in the first quarter, Flacco hit Pitta on a route up the seam for a touchdown …

… and the two connected over the middle again just before the half.

The Ravens even ran the ball well — albeit not because of some new commitment to it, like head coach John Harbaugh would probably have loved to see. Although the team ran the ball only 17 times, Marty Mornhinweg did call enough run plays for Baltimore to get over the century mark (110 yards), something it had accomplished just four times prior to this week.

So what do we make of these uncharacteristic breakout performances by two heavily underperforming units? Are the Lions now good at defense? Can the Ravens all of a sudden score a bunch of points?

It’s more likely that neither team will perform this well consistently down the stretch, but you only have to catch fire at the right time to win it all. Remember the 2012 Ravens offense? You know, the one that came out of nowhere to tear through the playoffs like a Tasmanian devil? Remember that four-game stretch when Flacco looked like Joe Montana, leading Baltimore past Andrew Luck’s Colts, Peyton Manning’s Broncos, and Tom Brady’s Patriots before beating the Niners in Super Bowl XLVII? You get anything close to that version of Flacco and pair it with the Ravens’ current top-ranked defense by DVOA, and it makes them a pretty damn tough out.

There’s hidden potential in unbalanced playoff teams. Compared to a team that’s just merely good on both sides of the ball, a group that’s among the best in the league on either offense or defense needs only a few outlying performances from the lesser side to become Super Bowl–quality. The Lions have now shown a previously unseen level of excellence on defense to complement their already efficient offense, and the Ravens have finally proved that they can move the football and score like one of the league’s best offenses. Over the first 12 weeks, both Detroit and Baltimore were too lopsided to scare anyone, but for at least one day, they both looked like teams that will play deep into January.