It took a while, but after a substantial review the officiating crews on the ground and in New York determined that Jarvis Landry had maintained control of the football. What had originally been called an incomplete pass now put Cleveland on Baltimore’s 39-yard line with 80 seconds left in the season.
At that point, the fate of three teams and one division teetered on the negotiation of just six yards – the six yards Cleveland would need to put themselves into field goal range – albeit a long field goal.
Cleveland – winless a season ago – needed those six yards for a shot at finishing 2018 with a winning record. The Pittsburgh Steelers – their own game finished – had not left the field in Pittsburgh. They were helplessly watching the scoreboards from their own stadium. They needed those six yards and a successful field goal to vault past Baltimore and claim a playoff spot. For the Ravens, everything depended on keeping Cleveland off the scoreboard. Losing this game – a game that they had led 20-7 at the half – would cost them a playoff berth and end their season.
The drama of the final minute overshadowed – for the moment, anyway – three big first half moments that eluded Cleveland and forced them into this position.
With 1:53 left in the first half, the Ravens had first-and-goal on the 1-yard line. Ahead 20-7, they had their opportunity to salt the game away. Quarterback Lamar Jackson leapt over the line, extending the ball over the goal for the apparent game-icing touchdown.
But he hadn’t gone far enough. Replays clearly showed Jackson pulling the ball back to him before it crossed the line. That might have brought up fourth-and-goal, and the Ravens may have tried it again, but as Lamar was bringing the ball back in, defensive lineman Larry Ogunjobi stuck a hand between the ball and Jackson’s chest and batted the football out of Lamar’s grasp.
When Cleveland defensive back Jabrill Peppers picked up the ball on the 7-yard line, there was no one in front of him. But the potential 93-yard fumble return touchdown was denied him. Seeing the official rule the touchdown, someone blew the whistle, ending the play. A review did give the ball to the Browns, but back on their own 7-yard line.
On the very next play, Landry, split the deep middle of the Raven defense. Cleveland rookie Baker Mayfield saw him break clear and lofted the football in his direction. It was a good throw, but not to either shoulder. Baker tossed the ball directly over Landry’s head, and Jarvis was forced to try to run under it like Willie Mays making a basket catch. As he looked up, the ball caromed right off his facemask – ending the opportunity for another huge play.
All of that bad luck notwithstanding, the Browns still ended the first half with Greg Joseph lining up a 46-yard field goal attempt. Joseph – who would be tasked with attempting a 51-yarder if Cleveland could manage those last six yards – saw his 46-yard attempt fade wide to the left.
Had the results of any of those moments panned out in Cleveland’s favor, it might well have been the Ravens making a desperate late-game attempt. Instead, it was the Browns sitting six agonizing yards away from field goal range.
Three incomplete passes later, Cleveland faced fourth down. The second down pass had been open. Landry – again – was running toward the left sideline with Jimmy Smith trailing. But Mayfield’s pass was behind him and back toward the defender.
As they had on each of the preceding passes, Baltimore sent the house. Eight players in pursuit of the Cleveland quarterback, who tried to get the ball to Duke Johnson on a crossing route that would probably have extended the drive. But Baltimore linebacker C.J. Mosley – seeing that he had no chance to penetrate the Cleveland offensive line – instead took two steps backward. Those two steps put him directly in line with the pass. He stuck a hand up, batted the pass into the air, and then gathered it in on the way down. The Ravens had held on, 26-24 (gamebook) (summary).
In a sense, the ending was anti-climactic (considering the setup), but it did finally bring clarity to the AFC North. Pittsburgh was done. After winning the previous two division titles and making four consecutive playoff appearances, the Steelers would be watching from home. (As a footnote, had the Tennessee-Indianapolis game later on that evening ended in a tie, the Steelers would have claimed the last playoff spot. That of course, didn’t happen.) Into the mix – breaking a three-year playoff drought – were the Ravens – even though by the skin of their collective teeth.
Inside the Baltimore Win
The Baltimore Ravens – in pure Neanderthal style – rolled up 121 rushing yards. That was the first quarter. They finished the first half with 179 rushing yards on 21 carries. They finished the game with 296 rushing yards on 47 attempts. These are college numbers, the kind the old Oklahoma Sooners used to ring up on the middling teams of the NCAA. It was the fifth time in the last seven games that Baltimore had piled up more than 200 rushing yards, with Jackson throwing just 24 passes – only 8 in the second half.
Baltimore will be a tough matchup in the playoffs. There is little mystery involved with them either offensively or defensively. Their intentions are crystal clear. But stopping them is another issue.
As far as this run-first offense goes, there are a couple troubling ways in which they are unique. First of all, they usually find early success in the running game. Over the years, running offenses have had to be a little patient and keep running, even if the early carries weren’t all that productive. The process was a slow wearing down of the defense as the game progressed, with each successive running play – like a body blow – eroding the defense’s will.
This hasn’t been a problem with Baltimore. Even early in the contest, they rarely get stymied. As mentioned earlier, here they had 121 yards in the first quarter. Against the Chargers the week before, they ran for 119 in the first half – with 43 of those coming on the very first play from scrimmage.
It’s a tough thing for a defense to recover from. When you are getting blown off the line of scrimmage from the very first play, it sends an impressive message.
Which brings me to the next point. Unlike a lot of running teams, Baltimore’s running attack produces a surprising number of big plays. Against Cleveland, Baltimore had seven runs of more than 15 yards, with five of those going for at least twenty. When other teams run the ball on third-and-9, they are hoping either to fool someone or at least gain a few extra yards for the upcoming kick. When Baltimore runs on third-and-9, they run with the expectation of getting the first down.
It’s actually a thing they feed off of. Trailing 7-3 latish in the first quarter, Cleveland blitzed Jackson on second-and-3. Lamar evaded all of the rushers, and then raced up the left sideline for 24 yards. It was at that point, that the Ravens seemed to come alive. Six plays later, Jackson sprinted right through the middle of the Cleveland defense almost untouched for the touchdown. While they would sweat some at the end, Baltimore would never trail again.
The Baltimore passing game still trails its running game. As he was in Los Angeles the week before, Jackson was as good as he needed to be Sunday against Cleveland, completing 14 of his 24 passes for 179 yards. His best pass right now seems to be the slant – whether quick or deep. When he has a receiver running away from a defender over the middle, Lamar usually delivers a confident accurate pass. Fortunately for him, Cleveland frequently gave him that look as they blitzed him a lot, playing man behind.
As I contemplate defending Jackson and the Ravens in the playoffs, I’m not sure that I would blitz him all that much. Teams blitz young quarterbacks to confuse them – and Cleveland did confuse Jackson some on Sunday. But even when fooled, Lamar was consistently able to avoid the sack and resisted the urge to make dangerous passes. He either threw the ball away, or turned on the blitzing defense for a big run.
That is the problem with blitzing Lamar. You allow him to use his athleticism to surprise you. If I were preparing Los Angeles’ defensive game plan, I would blitz Jackson sparsely. I would show him the most exotic zone coverages I could manage, often showing him a false pre-snap. My rush would focus on keeping Lamar in the pocket and making him beat me from there with his head and his arm.
Los Angeles – having just played the Ravens two weeks ago – should profit somewhat from already seeing them up close. With the WildCard round approaching, I don’t hold out a lot of hope for the Chargers in the re-match. They are, in the first place, decidedly small up front. In the second place, the Chargers haven’t looked much like themselves for a few weeks now.
The Fading Chargers
When Los Angeles won their Week 15 matchup against Kansas City by driving 60 yards in the final 2:37 for the winning touchdown, they secured their tenth victory over their previous eleven games. At that point it was easy to see them as a dangerous team going into the playoffs.
That Chargers team hasn’t been seen much the last two weeks. In Week 16 they were dominated by the Ravens. Last Sunday they had an opportunity to re-discover themselves against a struggling Denver team. The Chargers eventually pulled away for a 23-9 victory (gamebook) (summary), but still showed more cracks than one would expect from a 12-4 team.
My greatest concern, if I were Chargers head coach Anthony Lynn, would be an offense that struggled just as much against Denver and their twenty-second ranked defense as it did against Baltimore’s first-ranked defense. In particular, it was the offensive line that has started to underperform coming down the stretch.
The Chargers tried repeatedly to run the ball against Denver’s twenty-first ranked run defense. Austin Ekeler worked his way around right end for a clever 41-yard run in the second half, but that was the only real success they had on the ground. Their other 29 running plays managed just 75 yards – 2.6 yards per attempt.
Meanwhile, the pressure up the middle on Philip Rivers was constant throughout the game. They never sacked him, but truly with Rivers you would rather not sack him. Even after all these years, Rivers is still inclined, under pressure, to make a dangerous pass to avoid a sack. Denver intercepted him twice, bringing Rivers’ interception total to 12 for the year – six of those in the last three games. Philip has, in fact, thrown an interception on the opening drive of each of those games.
Los Angeles’ best chance of subduing Baltimore rests with their offense. The team that can manage to find some holes in that Raven defense and forge enough of a lead that Baltimore will have to abandon its running game stands an excellent chance to beat them. But for that team to be the Chargers, they will have to fix an awful lot of things very, very quickly.
The Chargers, I think, are in trouble here.