Last-se­cond vic­tory shows Ravens can win ugly too

Pushed to the end, de­fense, special teams help Jack­son pre­vail

Baltimore Sun - - RAVENS - By Jonas Shaf­fer

The Ravens were go­ing for it. Never mind that they’d failed on their last fourth-down at­tempt, that they’d be run­ning be­hind an un­drafted cen­ter, that not even Gus Ed­wards had man­aged to move the sticks on third-and-short against the San Fran­cisco 49ers’ fear­some front. On fourth-and-inches from the Ravens’ 44yard line, with less than five min­utes left in a tie game, vic­tory sit­ting on a knife’s edge, the de­ci­sion was made.

“We knew we were go­ing to go for it,” coach John Har­baugh said af­ter­ward.

Over 12 weeks, the Ravens’ mar­riage of an­a­lyt­i­cally in­formed de­ci­sion-mak­ing and a smash­mouth ap­proach had pro­duced a Most Valu­able Player-cal­iber season for quar­ter­back La­mar Jack­son and a ru­n­away lead in the AFC North. When math and men­tal­ity con­verged again on the most im­por­tant play of maybe the NFL season’s most hyped game Sun­day, they kept it sim­ple.

Af­ter a 20-17 win at M&T Bank Sta­dium that ex­tended their win­ning streak to a fran­chise-record eight games, the Ravens said that they had liked their odds. A quar­ter­back sneak for the elu­sive Jack­son? With All-Pro guard Mar­shal Yanda help­ing to clear space next to rookie cen­ter Patrick Mekari? They have taken big­ger risks this season. Given the choice be­tween play­ing it safe and play­ing to win, these Ravens will go for the jugu­lar.

Be­cause they have Jack­son. Be­cause they have Har­baugh. And be­cause they know that, even if that’s not enough, they can count on kicker Justin Tucker to hit a game-win­ning 49-yard field goal through the rain as time ex­pires.

“That was the goal,” Yanda said. “Pro­tect the foot­ball. Give us a chance to give Tuck a chance to win us the game.”

The Ravens could not rest un­til af­ter the 114th and fi­nal play of a po­ten­tial Su­per Bowl pre­view, but their tenac­ity was re­warded hand­somely. Never be­fore has a Ravens team started a season 10-2.

They’ll en­ter their fourth straight high­pro­file game, Sun­day’s show­down against the host Buf­falo Bills, with a three-game lead in the AFC North.

Ac­cord­ing to FiveThir­tyEight, they have the NFL’s best chances of win­ning the Su­per Bowl.

The Ravens’ first sin­gle-digit win since Week 6 was un­con­ven­tional by their stan­dards, de­fined as much by what Jack­son did with his right arm as by what de­fen­sive end Chris Worm­ley did with his left. Af­ter Jack­son (14-for-23 for a sea­son­low 105 yards and a touch­down) mis­fired on third-and-5 and then fourth-and-5 mid­way through the fourth quar­ter, the 49ers (10-2) took over need­ing about 30 yards to get into field-goal range for a would-be tiebreaker.

San Fran­cisco turned to a ground game that had been ra­zor sharp in un­pleas­ant con­di­tions, even more pro­duc­tive than the Ravens’ league-lead­ing unit. But af­ter the 49ers crossed into Ravens ter­ri­tory, sur­prise star run­ning back Ra­heem Mostert (19 car­ries for 146 yards, in­clud­ing a 40-yard score) was held to three straight 3-yard car­ries.

On fourth-and-1, quar­ter­back Jimmy Garop­polo dropped back — no play-ac­tion, no de­cep­tion. He was look­ing for tight end Ge­orge Kittle. His throw over the mid­dle never got there. (If it had, safety Earl Thomas III was in good po­si­tion any­way.) Worm­ley had pushed his way close enough to Garop­polo that when he stuck his left hand up, the ball clanged off it like it was a back­board.

“We knew we had to make a stop, no mat­ter how many yards they got,” Worm­ley said. “To­ward the end, when they were driv­ing, they got us a cou­ple times. We knew we had to make that stop for the of­fense to get the ball back to put us in po­si­tion to score. They de­cided to go for it … and we shut them down.”

Jack­son said the Ravens have en­tered ev­ery game this season ex­pect­ing a dog­fight. Af­ter five wins in a row in which they outscored op­po­nents by a com­bined 20262, they fi­nally got an­other one.

The 49ers started the game with the first open­ing-drive touch­down the Ravens have al­lowed this season. That also handed the Ravens their first deficit since Week 7. De­fen­sively, San Fran­cisco ended Jack­son’s streak of 12 straight scor­ing drives. The 49ers, with their sta­ble of ath­letic de­fen­sive ends and tal­ented de­fen­sive backs, were well suited to limit Jack­son (16 car­ries for 101 yards and a touch­down) and run­ning backs Mark In­gram II (59 yards) and Ed­wards (15 yards).

But the Ravens did not need Jack­son to make his most con­vinc­ing NFL MVP case to win a game that wide re­ceiver Wil­lie Snead IV said the team had “cir­cled.” This is a well-rounded squad, with a de­fense that made enough timely stops Sun­day and a special teams unit that blocked a field-goal at­tempt, pinned the 49ers at their 1 with a Sam Koch punt and didn’t err once on a slick sur­face.

The Ravens have emerged as the NFL’s best team be­cause they can win when their of­fense is at its worst. In Week 5, they had 5.3 yards per play, Jack­son threw three in­ter­cep­tions, and they still beat the Pittsburgh Steel­ers on the road in over­time. On Sun­day, they had 4.6 yards per play — a new season low — Jack­son threw what he called “hor­ri­ble” passes and had a red-zone drive ended by a fum­ble, and they still won.

“To win a game like that is re­ally valu­able,” Har­baugh said. “We ex­pect ev­ery game to be just like that. And some­times they’re not, but the ones that count, and the ones that are, you have to be ready for. Our guys ap­proached the week of work just that way, and they were ready for it.”

Jack­son cre­ates cer­tain ad­van­tages for of­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Greg Ro­man, but so does the Ravens’ ag­gres­sive ap­proach. Af­ter an­other two fourth-down con­ver­sions Sun­day, they have 15 this season, the most in the NFL and as many as the rest of the AFC North have com­bined.

Their last one was not as glam­orous as their fourth-and-2 score against the Seat­tle Sea­hawks or as cut­throat as their fourthquar­ter con­ver­sion against the Los An­ge­les Rams last Mon­day. But it was ef­fec­tive, as most have been.

Af­ter Ed­wards’ third-and-1 at­tempt was stuffed, Jack­son lined up un­der cen­ter, not out of the pis­tol. “When the ball’s a lit­tle wet­ter, it’s a lit­tle eas­ier to get it to him un­der cen­ter,” Mekari said. At the snap of the ball, San Fran­cisco line­backer Fred Warner blitzed the gap be­tween Mekari and Yanda. Yanda bent him back with his left shoul­der. Jack­son had to shoot through the first hole he saw, and that was it. He rode on right tackle Or­lando Brown Jr.’s back be­fore fall­ing for­ward for a 3-yard gain.

It was a small spark, enough to ig­nite a good enough drive. A 12-yard com­ple­tion to tight end Mark An­drews (game-high 50 yards and a touch­down) moved the Ravens into 49ers ter­ri­tory. A 10-yard throw to tight end Hay­den Hurst got the Ravens into field-goal range. Jack­son fi­nally came off the field at the 49ers’ 31. He had done enough.

What came next was pre­dictable: Tucker made his 38th straight fourthquar­ter field goal and 15th ca­reer gamewin­ner. But there would’ve been no mid­field cel­e­bra­tion, no roars of ap­proval around Bal­ti­more, had the Ravens not trusted their of­fense to find a yard. Give them a hole, and they’ll take the game, too.

“We’re de­ter­mined,” Jack­son said. “At the end of the day, of­fen­sive line, run­ning backs, re­ceivers, tight ends, all of us are de­ter­mined, re­gard­less. We’re try­ing to win. We played a great team. It was all-go. We had to do it.”

We knew we had to make that stop for the of­fense to get the ball back to put us

in po­si­tion to score. They de­cided to go for it … and we shut them down.”

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