Ravens Almost Toppled

Just after Justin Tucker’s 30-yard field goal had given Baltimore a 17-14 second quarter lead, the San Francisco 49ers began their final possession of the half on their own 25 with 1:58 left and all three of their time outs.

A minute and a half later – after Raheem Mostert ran out of bounds on the Baltimore 42 yard line – the 49ers finally became serious about the drive.  But it was too late then.  After managing just four plays over the first 92 seconds of the possession, San Francisco would cram four more plays into the next 22 seconds, making a belated bid for at least a tying field goal going into the half.

The best they could manage was a 51-yard field goal attempt from Robbie Gould that sailed wide left.  Officially, Marlon Humphrey was credited with a block as he grazed the ball with a fingertip, encouraging the kick to sail wide.

The second half would belong to the defenses.  Not only would there be no more touchdowns scored, there would be no offensive plays longer than 18 yards.  The conditions were a factor, as the entire game was played in an incessant rain.  But the field absorbed the water well, and never turned muddy or sloppy.  The story of the second half was – quite simply – the story of two defensive lines and the offensive lines that tried to pound them into submission.

Baltimore came into the game having run the ball 407 times through their first 11 games – the most rushing attempts in the NFL.  San Francisco was second in rushing attempts at 371.  True to form, the Ravens ran the ball 19 times in the second half (throwing the ball just 9 times), and San Francisco dialed up 16 running plays against just 10 passes.  The game was decided in pure Neanderthal fashion, as Baltimore drained the last 6:28 off the clock with a 12-play drive (9 of them runs) that set up Tucker’s clinching 49-yard field goal that made the final 20-17 Ravens (gamebook) (summary).

The end has kept me wondering about that missed opportunity at the end of the first half.  Almost two minutes and all of their time outs is oodles of time.  The 49ers have been more than moderately aggressive all year.  In fact, their first touchdown of the game came when quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo threw deep on fourth-and-two.  But here, they chose discretion over valor – and lived to regret it.

Lamar Jackson’s day as a running back was superlative, again.  The elusive Jackson ran for 101 yards and a touchdown on only 16 carries.  Jackson the passer fared less well, completing 14 of 23 for just 105 yards.  His looping, 20-yard touchdown pass to Mark Andrews was Baltimore’s only play of the game to surpass 19 yards.  Jackson averaged just 4.57 yards per pass attempt, and just 7.5 yards per completion.  Factor in the one sack he suffered, and Baltimore’s average running play (4.7 yards) was greater than its average passing play (4.4 yards).

In the post-game, Lamar admitted that he struggled with the weather conditions.  Fair enough.  But playoff games in Baltimore in January aren’t likely to be any better.  Just saying.

Still No Holding Penalties

In spite of the fact that Baltimore ran the ball 38 times in a consistent ran, with a quarterback darting all over the backfield, the Ravens, once again, were not called for a single holding penalty.  They were actually flagged for holding twice in the Ram game, but one penalty was offset and the other was declined.

So, over the last five consecutive games, the Ravens have run the ball 187 times with no accepted holding calls, and only two holding flags thrown their way.  If this is not already a record, it has to be getting very, very close.

Just to be clear, the Ravens do hold sometimes.  They just never get flagged for it.

What’s Wrong With the Cowboys?

On their first play from scrimmage in the second half, Ezekiel Elliott darted off left tackle for 12 yards.  At that point in the game, Elliott had 68 yards on 11 carries.  Two plays later, Elliott ran for 3 yards up the middle.  There were still 9 minutes and 6 seconds left in the third quarter, but Elliott would never carry the ball again.

On the subject of what’s wrong with the Cowboys, there are no shortage of answers.  In their 26-15 Thanksgiving Day loss at home to Buffalo (gamebook) (summary) there were the usual litany of critical mistakes.

There was Dak Prescott’s sack-fumble late in the second quarter that set up Buffalo’s go-ahead touchdown; the blocked field goal at the end of the half (one of two missed field goals); the facemask penalty on Xavier Woods that helped set up a Buffalo field goal on the opening drive of the second half; and Michael Gallup’s inability to hold on to a would-be touchdown pass at the end of the third quarter (and Prescott’s subsequent bad pass on fourth down).

In all of their losses this year, there has been a similar laundry list of mostly mental errors that have kept Dallas hovering at 6-6.  Certainly, they have to make fewer mistakes.  But let me add a couple other issues that Dallas really should address.

In the first place, their best team isn’t the team they think they are.  This references the usage of Elliott that I pointed out earlier.

Earlier this season, Prescott and number one receiver Amari Cooper had a couple of brilliant games – and now, all of a sudden, the Cowboys define themselves as a passing team with a solid supporting run game.  In the best version of the Dallas Cowboys, the offense runs through Elliott.  Two caries for Ezekiel in the second half for 15 yards just isn’t enough.

The pass-first version of the Cowboys will usually rack up a lot of yards (and the Cowboys moved the ball for 426 yards last Thursday) but will frequently struggle to convert those yards into points.

The other point – that really must be obvious to everyone now – was clearly illustrated in what I consider to be the play of the game.

With 2:17 left in the first half, Buffalo faced a fourth-and-one on the Cowboy 30.  The score is still tied at 7.  Buffalo quarterback Josh Allen fumbles the snap.  In the chaos around the line of scrimmage, Allen manages to find the ball, pick it up, and plow his way through the Dallas defense for three yards and the first down.  On the next play, Buffalo employed a piece of trickery that ended with wide receiver John Brown lofting a touchdown pass to Devin Singletary.  Buffalo would never trail after that.

In the postgame, talking about that play, Allen said “I wanted it.  I wanted it really bad.”  This has been a recurring pattern in Dallas.  The Cowboys play pretty well, but never seem to want the game as badly as their opponents do.  Thus they are never able to overcome their mistakes.

How badly do the Cowboys want this?  This is a question that will dog coach Jason Garrett, but lands on general manager Jerry Jones’ plate as well.  Jerry, I think, believes that all he has to do is sign a bunch of name players and he will automatically have a great team.  For fantasy football, it’s a scheme that might work well enough.  Putting together a locker room is more of an art form.  One that Dallas hasn’t quite mastered yet.

The Win They Needed

With Philadelphia refusing to take advantage of the opportunities that the slumping Cowboys have presented them with, Dallas’ holding on to the NFC East Division title still seems more likely than not.  For Buffalo, though, this was a very significant victory.

Long assumed to be a wild card team, Buffalo still faces a very daunting closing schedule.  They follow Thanksgiving in Dallas with a game against the unbeatable Ravens, and then go on the road to Pittsburgh and to New England.  Buffalo’s only win this season was over Tennessee in Week Five when Marcus Mariota was still their quarterback.  It’s not resume enough to make me confident in their ability to win any of these upcoming games.

They needed to find at least one win amongst those four teams, and beat the Jets in Week 17 to make it to the 10 wins they will probably need to secure that playoff berth.

This win in Dallas does that for them.  Now even if they lose their next three, a win over the Jets likely puts them in.  That Week Four victory over Tennessee gives them the necessary tie breaker.

Falling from grace will likely be the Indianapolis Colts.  Two weeks ago, Indy was sitting in the catbird seat.  They were 6-4 and commanding the division.  But consecutive losses to Houston and Tennessee have damaged them significantly.  In an AFC where you will probably need ten wins, Indy is now 6-6.  Between them and winning out is a Week 15 date in New Orleans.  Colt fans will probably look back at this week’s home loss to the Titans and shake their heads.

With Indy’s potential demise, their division will likely fall to the Houston Texans – now 8-4 after getting the big win they needed against New England.  They play Tennessee twice in the last three weeks.  If they can manage a split, that would almost certainly be enough to give them the division.

And, of course, that Houston game has other repercussions, as the Patriot loss combined with the Baltimore win makes the Ravens the new first seed in the conference by virtue of their earlier win over New England.

The most impactful NFC game was Seattle’s Monday night win over Minnesota.  That Viking loss now looks like it will give Green Bay – who is still undefeated within its division – just enough advantage to slip past Minnesota to win the NFC North.  They would effectively switch playoff places with the Vikings, sending Minnesota in as the sixth seed.

Four games to go.  I expect a few more surprises before all is said and done.

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