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How the Baltimore Ravens Became the Biggest Wrench in the AFC Playoff Picture

Less than two months ago, Baltimore was a team without an identity. Now, with Lamar Jackson under center and a wonky offense built to support him, the Ravens have legitimate championship aspirations.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

A little less than two months ago, after a 23–16 home loss to the Steelers, the Ravens’ season looked like it was unraveling. Joe Flacco had thrown for just 206 yards on 37 attempts against Pittsburgh as the anemic Baltimore offense failed to score more than 23 points for the fifth straight game — four of which had been losses. After falling to Pittsburgh, the Ravens sat at 4–5 and their playoff hopes seemed to be slipping away. Then, in Week 11, Lamar Jackson stepped in and changed everything.

With Baltimore’s 22–10 road win over the Chargers on Saturday and Pittsburgh’s 31–28 loss to the Saints on Sunday night, the Ravens’ and Steelers’ fortunes have flipped. Baltimore now controls its own fate in the AFC North, and, pending a borderline miracle in Week 17, Pittsburgh will be watching the playoffs from home. Jackson isn’t the sole reason the Ravens have won six of their last seven games and now sit atop the division, but the offense that Baltimore built around him has turned the Ravens into the biggest potential wrench in the AFC playoff picture.

Heading into the final third of the season, John Harbaugh had a decision to make. He’d watched his offense sputter under Flacco in the season’s first nine weeks, and after Flacco went down with a hip injury, he’d seen the new dynamic that Jackson could bring to that unit. When Flacco returned, Harbaugh had to choose between an underwhelming and predictable option and a volatile rookie with a completely different skill set. The Ravens’ head coach went with Jackson, transforming the team’s offense midseason and in turn choosing a path that not nearly enough NFL teams do. The Ravens conceded that, if their approach wasn’t going to be effective in a traditional way, they might as well get weird with it.

Baltimore’s offense is a totally unique entity, and that goes beyond just the sheer number of carries the team gives to its quarterback. The Ravens use an array of motions and fakes that creates headaches for opposing defenses. And by embracing their shotgun-based rushing attack, they’ve made the extreme nature of their offense their most significant advantage on that side of the ball. Getting ready to face the Ravens is different from preparing to go up against any other team in football, and that alone makes them a dangerous challenge in any given week.

Still, Baltimore’s approach has its drawbacks. Jackson has struggled as a passer this season in ways he didn’t at Louisville, airmailing straightforward throws and consistently encountering accuracy issues. But the best part about the Ravens’ current makeup on offense is that they don’t need Jackson to do much as a thrower. He makes the occasional great pass, like his long touchdown toss to Mark Andrews in the third quarter of Saturday’s win over the Chargers, and that combined with a ground attack powered by Gus Edwards and Jackson is more than enough output to give the Ravens a chance in every game. Baltimore doesn’t need to score 30 points to give teams trouble, and it won’t have to come playoff time, either. With the way the Ravens defense is playing, there may be games in which Jackson and Co. need half that.

The Baltimore defense dominated Philip Rivers and the Chargers offense on Saturday, forcing L.A.’s passing game into its worst performance of the season. Following a prime-time win over the Chiefs in Week 15, Rivers looked to be gearing up for a late-season MVP push, but the Ravens held him to just 4.89 yards per attempt with a pair of interceptions. This defense isn’t reliant on generating takeaways like the Bears and other elite units are. Even after picking off Rivers twice and sealing the game with a fumble return for a touchdown, Baltimore has still created only 14 turnovers all season — the 29th-lowest mark, tied with Oakland and one spot ahead of the lowly Lions. In a way, though, the lack of turnovers is what makes the Ravens defense so frightening. Without piling up interceptions, Baltimore still has the no. 1 scoring defense in the NFL (17.5 points per game), and only Chicago had a better DVOA entering Week 16.

Rather than subsisting on game-swinging plays, the Ravens have built a stifling unit with no obvious weaknesses and plenty of talent at every level. And it’s managed to disrupt some of the best passing games in the league. Both Rivers and Patrick Mahomes II stumbled against Baltimore, and that was due in large part to the Ravens’ front four. Rivers was under duress for seemingly the entire game, as he was sacked four times and hit eight. Two weeks earlier, Mahomes was hit a whopping 15 times in Kansas City’s 27–24 overtime win. Whether it’s Za’Darius Smith, Matthew Judon, or mainstay Terrell Suggs, at least one member of the Ravens’ front has gotten consistent pressure when it’s mattered most, and it’s led to some uncharacteristically bad days for some of the league’s most productive quarterbacks.

Baltimore’s formula of wonky offense and crushing defense would have made them a force in the AFC playoff picture no matter how the seeding worked out, but as the postseason landscape has shifted over the past few weeks, the Ravens have gone from a wild-card curiosity to a team with legitimate championship aspirations. If the playoffs were to begin today, Baltimore would host a wild-card game against the Chargers, a team the Ravens handled convincingly just two days ago. A win would send the Ravens to Arrowhead Stadium, where Baltimore nearly upset Mahomes and the Chiefs just a couple of weeks ago. Then they’d likely be off to Foxborough for another AFC championship matchup with the Patriots, whose recent struggles have them looking far from bulletproof. The Ravens’ entire path through the AFC postseason features teams they’ve played well in recent weeks or former juggernauts that look far less intimidating now than they did a month ago.

And for Baltimore, the inverse is true. As recently as early November, the Ravens were a team without an identity. Now, with the postseason on the horizon, Baltimore has a winning recipe and looks more dangerous than nearly every other playoff team. The Ravens have limitations, but as a team, they know exactly what they are. And that assuredness has them looking like a potential postseason party crasher.