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Battle-tested Ravens have a chance to make a big statement on Sunday

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battle-tested / bat· tle-test· ed/ a.

1. Shown to be reliable and effective by being used in war.

2. Having experienced and been toughened by battle

In late September of 2020, the Ravens found themselves in an all-too familiar position: having just lost to the Kansas City Chiefs in a primetime game, to the dread of their fans and the delight of their many detractors.

To the fans, this loss was a heartbreaker. It was a sign that despite an offseason used to bulk up their roster to compete in games like this, maybe they still didn’t belong in a conversation with the (then) defending Super Bowl Champions. To the detractors, it represented another chance to rub the noses of Ravens’ fans in this reminder of their own relative inadequacy, at least in comparison to the rest of the league’s elite.

One of said detractors following that loss was writer Jeffri Chadiha of NFL.com. He penned an impartial, but still fairly cutting piece on how Baltimore had yet again proven themselves to be a slingshot-less David to Kansas City’s glory-boy Goliath:

“There comes a point in the journey of all championship contenders when they have to be brutally honest with themselves,” Chadiha led the piece with. “Such teams can’t merely marvel at the talent in their locker room, the statistics they compile or all the opponents they batter when the games don’t mean as much. They actually have to deliver when the spotlight burns brightest, and the consequences are most dire. This is where the Baltimore Ravens (2-1) keep falling short, and they officially should consider it a problem.”

While he had already established his point, he continued on to the chagrin of Ravens sympathizers everywhere, who wanted to argue with people like this but knew in that moment that they were powerless to:

“Baltimore’s 34-20 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs (3-0) on Monday night was yet another example of how far these Ravens need to go to achieve what they believe is within their grasp. The Chiefs showed up, provided a stunning tutorial on how to beat down an opponent on the road and left everyone watching with a clear reminder of why they’re the defending Super Bowl champions. The Ravens are supposed to be the most dangerous threat to Kansas City’s hopes at a repeat. Baltimore looked like a team that had no business even pondering such thoughts at this point in time.”

With the benefit of hindsight, can we consider this a 2020 Week 3 overreaction? Possibly. As we all know, Baltimore embarked on a wild regular season from there before finally getting the playoff monkey off their back with a win at Tennessee. Meanwhile, the Chiefs went to the Super Bowl and were routed by the Buccaneers — the first major slip-up of the Patrick Mahomes era.

No matter, though. Many still saw the point that Chadiha had made back in September (already accepted as stone-cold fact by many fans and media alike) as still a valid one after the Ravens faltered in Buffalo in the divisional round.

Baltimore fans (perhaps correctly) saw this as a classic case of goalpost moving. The crowd that had once gleefully giggled about Lamar Jackson’s alleged inability to win a playoff game now re-aligned their sights on bigger targets: the divisional round, the AFC Championship game, and of course the Super Bowl. They took — and continue to take — their pick of a litany of reasons why he won’t ever win on these levels, from the technical arguments (his deficiencies as a passer) to the more absurd (questions about his maturity and intelligence.)

Kansas City Chiefs v Baltimore Ravens
The face of Baltimore’s alleged big-game issue was also (understandably) the face of their franchise: Lamar Jackson.
Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

If you listen to some of the more informed minds on the subject of quarterbacking, Jackson’s aforementioned shortcomings in the passing game are greatly overstated by some. Furthermore, despite engendering some controversy on issues both small (such as running on asphalt while still yet to receive his first big payday), and large (initially hesitating to receive a COVID vaccine), he’s proven himself to be a great teammate, a consummate leader, and a good-natured human being. But for many, none of this will ever be enough, and that’s even if he and the Ravens ever hoist a Lombardi trophy together.

For the naysayers, they either don’t fear having to face this reality or will simply move the goalposts on it yet again if they do. For Ravens fans, it’s one that’s best to not even think about as they head into Week 4 of a season. This season has already proven to be a gauntlet the likes of which no one was expecting, complete with some surprising results. It’s in this Week 4 matchup that a question germane to the “big game” conversation we’ve become both tired of — and hopelessly entangled in —could prove to be answered:

Are the Ravens, once the face of youth and inexperience led by the fresh-faced Jackson, finally “battle-tested?”

It’s something of a nebulous term in a sports context but one you immediately understand, and also one you know how to apply to a team or a player. This is also something of an ambiguous process, but it’s one that’s well summed up by a line that I’ll slightly paraphrase from Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart in his landmark 1964 ruling on Jacobellis v. Ohio: You know it when you see it.

Perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself, but after three of the wildest weeks (that in actuality stretches all the way back to training camp considering the injuries that have catalyzed some of the wildness) I can remember in years, I’m starting to get the feeling that this team has reached a certain convergence point that can make them a dangerous out for anyone.

Baltimore Ravens v Detroit Lions
Did the Ravens springboard their season thanks to a heroic effort from their bombastic kicker?

Again, this is something that’s hard to quantify and if anyone has a battle-tested metric, I’m all ears. Until then, though, let’s stack the numbers up against what we’ve seen. Their highest rated player by PFF is Bradley Bozeman with an 81.7, their point differential through the first three games is at -3, they have a turnover differential of –2, have allowed eight sacks through three games, and have committed 19 penalties for 195 yards.

The above stats paint the picture of a team that might just barely be hanging on and with a 2-1 record that could very easily be 0-3, you wouldn’t be wrong to see it that way. The obvious counterargument to that is how they could also easily be 3-0. However, even more than just looking at what’s occurred and playing the shoulda-coulda-woulda game, there are further advanced metrics that suggest the Ravens have yet to play their best football.

Specifically, Pro Football Outsiders provides two that work in tandem, DVOA and DAVE. DVOA measures efficiency; DAVE is a projection of how efficient a team will be for the rest of the season based upon how they’ve played so far vs. preseason DVOA expectations.

Currently at 13th in DVOA (13th in offense, 20th in defense), the Ravens are in the top half of the league in that category. This is a bit of a feather in their cap considering they’ve played some sloppy football at times. An even bigger reason for optimism is their DAVE rating, which after Week 3 sits at No. 5 in the NFL. This means that Football Outsiders is projecting them to finish significantly higher in efficiency than what we’ve seen from them already. Some might look at that as a bit optimistic, but there’s good reason to think that way.

With 15 players currently on injured reserve in early September, a worse record to start out would’ve been understandable for Baltimore. Instead, they’re over .500 and stand to gain back several of the players that they had lost to injury in the coming weeks. That includes some significant names such Nick Boyle, Rashod Bateman, Derek Wolfe, and (hopefully) all-pro left tackle Ronnie Stanley, who is continuing to rehab in the hopes of suiting up again soon.

With those players coming back into the fold and more time for this roster to gel, it 100% stands to reason that Baltimore will only be an even more efficient team as this season unfolds. Will that translate into wins? There’s no telling as of right now. However, one thing that we can take from the last three weeks is that even during the worst of times, this iteration of the Ravens (thanks largely to Jackson and the coaching staff) are still capable of playing winning football.

After the heartrending loss they endured in Week 1 to the Raiders (and the subsequent loss of Stanley under strange circumstances just days later), few would’ve batted an eye if they had simply gone in the tank and proven lambs to the slaughter versus the Chiefs in Week 2. They responded by gutting out a life-affirming win on the very stage they were mocked on a year prior. Then, they followed that up with a miraculous (and in terms of placekicking, historic) victory over the Lions on the road last Sunday.

The term “team of destiny” was thrown out a bit following that game in regards to Baltimore, and while it’s early in the season, I wouldn’t talk anyone off of that take at this point.

Baltimore Ravens v Detroit Lions
Through three weeks, Baltimore is proving to be more battle-tested than ever.
Photo by Nic Antaya/Getty Images

Part of what I think has made them both an interesting watch, and seemingly more than the sum of their parts, is the convergence of innocence and experience that Jackson now possesses. I wrote back in August that in a increasingly serious world (in just about every facet), Jackson’s relatively carefree persona was a stark contrast to the world at large. Also, the constant barrage of criticisms he was facing — both fair and otherwise. Jackson’s combination of a mindset that’s unbothered by his doubters (and the big game failures they point to), along with the experience he’s gained from said failures, has made him the perfect leader for a team in relative turmoil.

Jackson had thrown two interceptions early on in a primetime game against Kansas City and was facing fourth-and-forever on his own side of the field with under 30 seconds remaining in Week 2. The former MVP delivered big time in both spots; in both of the Ravens’ two wins this season. He arguably did so too in their one loss. By my estimation, that’s what you call coming through when the spotlight burns the brightest and the consequences are the most dire. Jackson hasn’t been statistically dominant this season by any means, but perhaps more importantly, he’s proving himself to be more resilient than ever.

And wherever he goes, the Ravens go. Whether it’s the newcomer in Sammy Watkins, the makeshift options along their offensive line or a host of their defensive players who are off to a strong start — this team largely seems to take their cues from the quarterback. This has led us to their Week 4 matchup against a team that, despite their early success, may be ripening themselves up for some of the very same criticisms the Ravens have faced over the last few years (albeit on a smaller scale).

At 3-0, the Denver Broncos have defeated the New York Giants, Jacksonville Jaguars, and New York Jets, three teams with a combined record of 0-9 to start out 2021. The steady hand of Teddy Bridgewater and a swarming defense that ranks fifth in DVOA has gotten the job done, and they deserve all the credit in the world for it. But just as the Ravens have had to with Jackson and John Harbaugh over the last few years, it’s probable that Denver will face some growing pains with Bridgewater and Vic Fangio this season.

Will the first instance of that come Sunday against Baltimore? Maybe, but it shouldn’t be seen as any sort of slight against Denver save for a catastrophic blowout in favor of the Ravens, which nobody should expect to happen anyway. Instead, it would really say more about Baltimore, who after a tumultuous training camp and a wild start to the season would be making a massive statement by clawing their way to 3-1.

That statement? They’re resilient, they’ve learned from their mistakes, and after years of playing the plucky little brother to some of the AFC’s other ruling elite, they’re a battle-tested outfit ready to take on anyone. And in a conference that’s (as of this moment) wide open, concerning a team that’s still yet to play it’s best football, that’s a very scary proposition.