One month ago, the Baltimore Ravens were in a state of Code Red.
The team ended a September practice after two players — No. 1 running back Gus Edwards and No. 1 cornerback Marcus Peters — tore anterior cruciate ligaments on back-to-back plays. They had already lost running backs J.K. Dobbins (torn ACL) and Justice Hill (torn Achilles tendon) for the year, and with an entire position group devastated, many pundits justifiably expected 2021 would be a lost season.
Yet, here they are. The Ravens are 5-1, atop the AFC North, and Sunday’s 34-6 termination of the Los Angeles Chargers (4-2) sent a clear message to the entire league:
Go ahead and try them.
The Baltimore Ravens can win any type of game.
After going full MVP mode last week in a thrilling comeback win over the Indianapolis Colts, quarterback Lamar Jackson didn’t force his way into a Superman cape Sunday. The veteran free agents that Baltimore signed when those injuries hit — Latavius Murray, Devonta Freeman and Le’Veon Bell — combined for 115 rushing yards and three touchdowns in this one when the team’s leading rusher (behind Jackson), Ty’Son Williams, was inactive.
The Ravens run first and run often, but don’t get it twisted — this is no ground-and-pound operation straight out of the 1970s. With Jackson lighting the match, the Ravens can trade haymakers with Patrick Mahomes and Kansas City and come out with a 36-35 win, detonate in a single quarter the way they did against the Colts or roll with a more surgical approach as was the case against the Chargers.
The threat of Jackson’s arm and Baltimore’s punishing yet complex run scheme drives defenses mad. Jackson has the second-most career 100-yard rushing games (nine) for a quarterback. And although Michael Vick had 10, it took him 143 regular-season games. Jackson? He has played only 52.
Coming into Sunday’s game, there were questions about how the Ravens’ defense would handle an offense that never seems to lift its foot off the gas.
The Chargers brought their go-for-broke bravado with them 2,700 miles east. Brandon Staley’s 100-mph coaching style had earned Los Angeles a win over Kansas City at Arrowhead in Week 3, and he went full throttle again to beat the Cleveland Browns last week. He seems to treat punting like it’s a disease.
But at Baltimore, two bold calls turned this one into a blowout.
In the first half, Staley rolled the dice on fourth-and-3 from the Chargers’ 39-yard line. Quarterback Justin Herbert’s high throw to Mike Williams hit the wide receiver’s hands, but Baltimore’s Marlon Humphrey — one of the gnarliest corners in this NFL — was on the spot to rough up Williams. The Ravens got the ball back with 9 minutes left in the second quarter and drove for a field goal and a 17-0 lead.
In the second half, Staley gambled again. Trailing, 24-6, with 5:58 left in the third quarter, he went for it from his own 19-yard line. Herbert’s fourth-and-1 pass fell incomplete, effectively ending the game.
It’s hard to knock the first-year Chargers coach. Such fearlessness should become the rule, not the exception, in a league bogged down by old-school thinking.
This time, however, that bravado backfired against a callused Ravens team with a defense coordinated by Don Martindale. The names of yesteryear on this defense are long gone — either retired or signed with other teams — but in his fourth year running the defense, Martindale has built a unit capable of ruining the NFL’s best offenses.
On third down before that first Staley gamble, Ravens safety DeShon Elliott blitzed untouched and dinged Herbert to force an errant incompletion. In the second quarter, Elliott muscled an interception away from 6-foot-5, 246-pound tight end Jared Cook.
Edge rusher Justin Houston, a 10-year NFL veteran, showed he still has plenty of juice in his 31-year-old legs with a sack of Herbert late in the fourth quarter, and linebacker Josh Bynes, who is on his third stint with the Ravens, was omnipresent Sunday.
After running free through the Cleveland secondary, the Chargers’ receivers had nowhere to go Sunday. Herbert’s 67.8 passer rating was the second-worst of his career. Austin Ekeler? Invisible. He managed 7 yards on six carries.
Finally, we’re getting clarity in the AFC. The surging Buffalo Bills and the Ravens have dynamic quarterbacks with special traits — Josh Allen’s freakish arm strength, Jackson’s don’t-blink elusiveness. Jackson’s Midas touch has been enough to mitigate the injuries that have piled up. But coming out of Sunday, it is apparent that both teams have defenses that can drag any explosive offense into a dark alley and win. That’s what made the Ravens so good in 2000 and 2012.
Led by Jackson? A return to the Super Bowl should be the bar for Baltimore.
What a crazy thought that would have been a month ago.
Dallas has talent throughout its roster.
Strange things happen to explosive offenses in Foxborough, Massachusetts. That has been the case for a generation.
So it wasn’t too surprising to see Dak Prescott and the Dallas Cowboys sputter in the red zone for a while Sunday afternoon. Two weeks prior, New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick had Tampa Bay quarterback Tom Brady on the ropes, too. But as masterful as Belichick is, this is a game fueled by the players and Dallas had more than enough talent to pull out a 35-29 overtime win.
In overtime, Prescott tossed a 35-yard touchdown pass to CeeDee Lamb, earning Dallas the sort of steely win it has lacked the past 25 Super Bowl-less seasons. Belichick appeared to let his guard down on the play. Lamb was able to work his way from the left side of the field all the way to the deep right with no safety help over the top. Prescott casually rolled right off play-action to hit his receiver, then Lamb scored and waved “goodbye” to cornerback Jalen Mills.
It was a masterful end to a chaotic fourth quarter with three lead changes and a few “Oh, this one is over” moments.
New England went up, 21-20, on a 1-yard touchdown run that ended a 75-yard drive that milked nearly 7 minutes of game clock. Getting possession with 6 minutes remaining, the Cowboys’ drive stalled at the Patriots’ 33-yard line, where linebacker Josh Uche stopped Prescott 2 yards short of a crucial third-down conversion. Dallas kicker Greg Zuerlein missed the field-goal try from 51 yards out, and it looked like New England needed only to run out the remaining 2:52.
But two plays (and one delay-of-game penalty) into the Patriots’ possession, New England quarterback Mac Jones was picked by Cowboys cornerback Trevon Diggs, who returned the ball 42 yards for a touchdown that put Dallas ahead, 26-21, after an unsuccessful 2-point conversion attempt.
Jones hit Kendrick Bourne for a 75-yard touchdown pass and converted the 2-point attempt to give the Patriots a 3-point lead, and the Cowboys again responded.
First, Prescott led a nine-play, 40-yard field-goal drive that tied the game at 29 with 20 seconds remaining. Prescott kept the drive on fourth-and-4, alive with a pinpoint throw to Cedrick Wilson.
In overtime, Dallas’ defense forced a Patriots punt, then Prescott went a perfect 5-of-5, finishing with that deep pass to Lamb to win the game.
As the game progressed, Prescott gradually figured out what Belichick was throwing at him until finally delivering the knockout blow. He completed 36 of his 51 attempts for 445 yards and three touchdowns.
Lamb has emerged as the team’s No. 1 receiver, totaling 149 yards with two scores Sunday, and the Cowboys stuck with the run, getting 110 combined rushing yards on 27 carries from Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard.
Outside of the one deep shot, Jones and the Patriots continued to play small ball. Eventually, they will need to dust off some deep balls to keep up in today’s NFL.
It took oddities and Dolphins gaffes for the Jaguars to get their first win.
Urban Meyer’s NFL career has been an embarrassment so far. Meyer, Jacksonville’s coach, committed some personnel sins — the quick hiring and firing of a strength coach accused of racist comments and bullying, the Tim Tebow distraction in training camp — before the regular season even started. Once it did, the Jaguars (1-5) started losing in heartbreaking fashion and Meyer’s off-field errors overshadowed the ones he was making on the sideline.
But on Sunday, Meyer got his first win as an NFL coach. The Jaguars beat the Miami Dolphins in a 23-20 stunner with kicker Matthew Wright — signed one day prior — drilling a 53-yard field goal as time expired.
A wacky combination of factors was all the Jaguars needed to get their first win.
- The game was played at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in London.
- The struggling teams played hot potato with the football with a fumble, an interception and a turnover on downs in one seven-play span in the second half.
- Wright tied the score, 20-20, with a 54-yard kick that somehow curved in at the last moment.
- Tied at 20, Dolphins coach Brian Flores wisely went for it on fourth-and-inches from his 46-yard line with 1:46 left. The problem was an egregious play call. Instead of sneaking ahead, Miami lined up in a shotgun formation. Malcolm Brown was stopped short of the marker.
- Miami (1-5) had one more gaffe up its sleeve. On the ensuing possession, the Jaguars faced a fourth-and-5 from the Dolphins’ 44-yard line with 5 seconds left. Flores even called a timeout to set up the defense. And what happened? The Dolphins allowed quarterback Trevor Lawrence to knife a completion to Laviska Shenault Jr. for 9 yards.
Shenault hit the turf and Wright won the game, snapping a 20-game losing streak, the second-longest in the Super Bowl era.
In truth, there is a lot to like about this young Jaguars core. Lawrence, the No. 1 overall pick in this year’s draft, has been improving steadily. He has a feel for pressure that’s beyond his years. Lawrence threw for 319 yards and a touchdown.
It’s still hard to believe Jacksonville drafted a running back (Clemson’s Travis Etienne) 25th overall this year with James Robinson on the roster. The 2020 undrafted pickup continues to be one of the great scouting finds in the sport, scrapping for 101 total yards with a rushing score. And the receiving corps is a healthy mix of young (Shenault is 23, D.J. Chark 25) and old (Marvin Jones Jr. is 31).
The question is whether Meyer can get the most out of all of them before team owner Shahid Khan runs out of patience.
Around the NFL
Cardinals 37, Browns 14: Baker Mayfield’s Hail Mary heave to Donovan Peoples-Jones for a touchdown at the end of the first half was neat. Other than that, the Cardinals dominated every facet of the game, despite playing without coach Kliff Kingsbury (COVID-19). Quarterback Kyler Murray was efficient again for Arizona, with four touchdowns and no picks, and Arizona’s decision to sign a few graybeards paid off again: A.J. Green led the Cardinals in receiving (79 yards, one touchdown), while J.J. Watt had a sack.
Raiders 34, Broncos 24: The Raiders franchise has been in turmoil since Jon Gruden resigned as coach Monday, but its players clearly enjoyed getting back to football Sunday. Quarterback Derek Carr averaged 18.9 yards per completion and spread the ball around: Six different players had a reception of more than 20 yards against one of the NFL’s finest defenses.
Kansas City 31, Washington 13: After floating an interception — his second of the first half — while trying to avoid taking a sack, Patrick Mahomes snapped out of his funk to put together touchdown drives on three straight second-half possessions. A Kansas City secondary that has been lit up all season held Washington to one touchdown.
Packers 24, Bears 14: Justin Fields could be special one day, but Sunday wasn’t it. The rookie missed a wide-open Allen Robinson deep for one touchdown and took some vicious shots from Green Bay, which rolled as Aaron Rodgers passed for two touchdowns and ran for a third.
Rams 38, Giants 11: One of these days, Cooper Kupp will be recognized for what he is: an elite wide receiver. Kupp’s full repertoire as a receiver was on display — including some nifty dancing to reel in a fourth-and-1 touchdown pass — and he now has 46 receptions for 653 yards and seven touchdowns through six games.
Bengals 34, Lions 11: The decision to draft wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase over tackle Penei Sewell looks better every week. When Chase wasn’t shredding the Lions’ secondary (97 yards), he was blocking downfield to spring Joe Mixon for a 40-yard touchdown. This Cincinnati offense is fun and for real.
Colts 31, Texans 3: After losing in gut-wrenching fashion all season, the Colts got a home date with the Texans to provide an ego boost. Running everything through second-year back Jonathan Taylor (14 carries, 145 yards, two touchdowns) sure was a swell idea. With the win, Indianapolis vaulted to second place in the AFC South and bolstered its chances of making the playoffs to 29%.
Vikings 34, Panthers 28 (OT): The tale of Good Kirk, Bad Kirk continued in epic fashion with Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins throwing for 373 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions on 33-of-48 passing. A clunker may be around the corner, but on this day, his perfectly placed ball to K.J. Osborn in overtime got Minnesota the win.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.