When the Baltimore Ravens host the New York Jets Thursday night, you’ll undoubtedly have heard ad nauseum how fun it is to watch Lamar Jackson throw and juke people out of their shoes, and how the Ravens, winners of an NFL-best nine straight games, are a runaway train destined to pull into Miami for Super Bowl LIV.
Are the Ravens really that good, though?
Believe it or not, the 5-8 Jets will provide some insight into whether the Ravens are such a powerhouse. Even though Gang Green is its usual dumpster fire of dysfunction, the Jets own the second-ranked run defense in the NFL (first in yards per carry allowed), so the matchup against Baltimore’s historically great rushing attack is certainly worthy of its prime-time platform.
Furthermore, the Ravens are playing just four days after a road victory in Buffalo, a game which Jackson emerged from a tad hobbled with a quad injury. If, under these circumstances, Jackson has a big game and Baltimore wins by its usual surplus — the Ravens’ +14.9 scoring margin is the NFL’s best — the Super Bowl talk will reach a crescendo.
But would a 10-game winning streak really solidify them as legit? After all, the list of the longest single-season win streaks is chock-full of teams that piled up W’s in the regular season but failed to seal the deal. The owners of the top two streaks on the list, and six of the top 10, fell short of a championship. So even if Baltimore’s franchise-record win streak reaches double digits, it’s far from a guarantee they’ll make good on their status as outright Super Bowl favorites.
But this team feels different from the 2000s Indianapolis Colts or Andy Reid’s Kansas City Chiefs. Those teams played in mostly bad divisions and amassed gaudy records by feasting on lesser opponents. Nobody’s mistaking this year’s AFC North for the NFC East of the 1980s, but Baltimore is having its way with some damn good teams.
Over the last two months, the Ravens have traveled to Buffalo, Seattle and the LA Rams to soundly beat playoff-caliber opponents. They’ve cashed in victories over the Texans, the defending-champion Patriots, and the NFC-leading 49ers at M&T Bank Stadium. Only the Seahawks have a tougher schedule this season, and Baltimore won the above six games by an average margin of 19.3 points.
The wild card is Baltimore’s defense, a unit that ranks sixth in yardage and fifth in points allowed. The Ravens have been so good at running the ball and thus dominating the time of possession that their defense has faced the league’s second-fewest scrimmage plays. So if a team can figure out how to keep Baltimore’s juggernaut from simultaneously eating clock and yardage, there could conceivably be a way to poke holes in a Ravens defense transformed by a long list of injuries to their secondary.
But that’s a lot of ‘ifs.’
It’s easy to get up for teams like the Seahawks, Niners and Patriots — teams everyone has circled on their schedules. But if the Ravens bring the same level of intensity to a game against the woebegone and injury-depleted Jets on a short week, it would demonstrate the kind of singular focus championship teams possess.
Of course, there’s plenty to gain from this game, regardless of the opponent. A victory ensures Baltimore its second straight AFC North title, and unlikely losses by the Patriots and Chiefs would clinch the Ravens’ home-field advantage throughout the playoffs with two games remaining.
But Baltimore’s style of play makes the location of their games moot. Running the ball and playing good defense is more than the Ravens’ identity, it’s a football principle that never goes out of style.
It also travels well — especially to South Florida in the winter.
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