Ravens Get SNF Win, Can Claw Their Way to Top of AFC with Easy Road Ahead

Ravens Get SNF Win, Can Claw Their Way to Top of AFC with Easy Road Ahead

Top stories Randy Litzinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty ImagesThe path ahead for the AFC North is lined with Ravens peering down from their perch.Baltimore survived a 19-17 victory Sunday over the rival Cincinnati Bengals thanks to yet another late-second, game-winning field goal from kicker Justin Tucker. The end result is more important than how the Ravens played throughout the rest of the contest.A week earlier, Baltimore found a way to lose its meeting with the Buffalo Bills when nearly the same exact type of decision needed to be made.In Week 4, head coach John Harbaugh chose to go for it on 4th-and-goal from the 2-yard line with the game tied at 20 and 4:15 left to play. Ultimately, the Bills picked off Lamar Jackson, drove the ball down the field and kicked the game-winner.”Well, I felt like it gave us the best chance to win the game because seven [points], the worst that happens is if they go down and score—and I think we’ll get them stopped—but if they go down the field and score a touchdown, the worse thing that can happen is that you’re in overtime,” Harbaugh told reporters.”But you kick a field goal there, now it’s not a three-down game anymore, it’s a four-down game. You’re putting your defense at a disadvantage because they’ve got four downs to convert all the way down the field. And a chance to again score seven, and then you lose the game on a touchdown.The loss knocked the Ravens down a peg and showed Baltimore isn’t quite in the same class as Josh Allen and Co.Baltimore Ravens head coach John Harbaugh reacts during the second half of an NFL football game against the Cincinnati Bengals, Sunday, Oct. 9, 2022, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)Lesson learned. On Sunday, Harbaugh chose to take the points when faced with a 4th-and-1 from the Cincinnati Bengals’ 3-yard line.Yes, the Bengals responded with a touchdown during the subsequent drive. Those previous points set up the victory, though. Instead of the offense needing a touchdown to win the game had Baltimore not converted, Tucker split the uprights to take the contest and outright lead in the AFC North.”Nobody is going to win [a championship] in October,” Harbaugh said afterward, “but these games go a long ways.”A division lead among teams in flux is a big deal, even if it’s only by one game during the second month of the season. A quick peek at the AFC North shows a lot of uncertainty outside of Baltimore.Clearly, the Bengals offense isn’t the same as it was a year ago. Even with perceived upgrades along the offensive line, Joe Burrow is still regularly under duress. Play-calling, particularly in the red zone, is highly suspect as well.The Cleveland Browns offense is playing much better than expected with Jacoby Brissett behind center. On the other hand, Joe Woods’ defense has been nothing short of a disaster. Breakdowns in coverage, undisciplined play and a soft front against the run have been exposed several times.Meanwhile, this year’s Pittsburgh Steelers squad may be the organization’s worst in the last 50 years. The offense is now being led by a rookie in Kenny Pickett, who just made his first career start. The once-vaunted defense just allowed an embarrassing 552 yards and 38 points to the Bills. The outcome could have been much, much worse if Bills head coach Sean McDermott didn’t call off the dogs.BALTIMORE, MARYLAND – OCTOBER 02: Quarterback Josh Allen #17 of the Buffalo Bills throws a pass against the Baltimore Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium on October 02, 2022 in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)Resistance within the division is flimsy. The same could be said of Baltimore’s overall competition during the final 13 weeks of the regular season.Next week, Harbaugh’s crew travels to northern New Jersey to take on the surprising 4-1 New York Giants. Every single one of the Giants’ wins have been by one score. New head coach Brian Daboll is working wonders, but his team may not be quite as good as its record indicates.Two weeks later, the Ravens fly to Tampa and face the Buccaneers. Like Baltimore, Tampa Bay is 3-2, though the Todd Bowles-led roster still features Tom Brady, Mike Evans, Shaquil Barrett and a whole lineup of talented players. The Bucs may not have been as successful out of the gates as expected, but they’re still one of the favorites in the NFC.Otherwise, no other team on the schedule has a winning record through five weeks of play.A few obstacles could get in the way. The Jacksonville Jaguars could establish a little bit of consistency by the time the two teams meet in Week 12. Russell Wilson could be his old self by the following week’s play. Deshaun Watson will be in his third game back from suspension to make the Browns a more formidable foe.But Baltimore still has two games left with the lowly Steelers and another against the Carolina Panthers—two teams that are currently earmarked for the top two picks of next year’s draft.Weird outcomes happen every weekend. The Ravens must simply go about their day-to-day and handle their business. If that happens, Baltimore will very much be in the thick of the AFC postseason picture as a Super Bowl contender.Why shouldn’t they be?Jackson is an MVP candidate. Granted, Allen appears to have taken a commanding lead in that particular race over the last two weeks. Nonetheless, Jackson remains one of the league’s most dynamic weapons.Even when Baltimore’s passing game isn’t clicking—like it was on Sunday when Jackson missed two open targets deep that would have resulted in touchdowns—the offense can lean on its creativity and run game, starting with its quarterback.Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson (8) runs the ball during the fourth quarter of a NFL football game against the Cincinnati Bengals, Sunday, Oct. 9, 2022, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Terrance Williams)”There’s nobody like him. He wants to win. He does it his way,” Harbaugh said. “That’s why everybody loves him.”Offensive coordinator Greg Roman can add a few wrinkles, like making Devin Duvernay a bigger part of the scheme. Duvernay lined up in the backfield, motioned across the offense and received multiple manufactured touches.As the weeks progress, left tackle Ronnie Stanley will eventually resume a full-time role. He’ll get more comfortable after suffering a season-ending ankle injury last season. His presence should help fortify Baltimore’s front five and settle the entire offense.Eventually, top wide receiver Rashod Bateman will return, too. The second-year target is currently recovering from a foot injury.Sunday’s performance also provided a glimmer of hope for the Ravens defense. The secondary ranked dead last by surrendering 315.2 yards per contest before the squad’s latest effort. The talented Bengals aerial attack managed a net total of just 190 yards.The defensive front could have held up better against Joe Mixon, but the tradeoff is one Baltimore will surely take. A conservative defensive approach with soft zone shells forces opposing offenses to be precise, without a tendency of allowing big plays.”There’s just nothing down the field if teams are going to play us like they did today,” Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow stated.The Ravens may not pick over the carcasses of their opponents throughout the rest of their regular-season schedule. The murder began to circle, though.By sticking the landing, Baltimore can once again find itself in the thick of things alongside the Bills and Kansas City Chiefs.Brent Sobleski covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @brentsobleski.

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