The last time the Baltimore Ravens won the AFC North was also the first time they ever clinched the No. 1 seed and home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs. However, their record-breaking 2019 season ended in a stunning 28-12 defeat to a hot Tennessee Titans team in the divisional round.
They went from the overwhelming favorites to represent the conference in the Super Bowl to being upset and having their hopes of winning a championship extinguished. Their iconic phrases and celebrations were mocked postgame by their former AFC Central rivals.
"BIG TRUSS!"— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) January 12, 2020
Oh, how the tables turn pic.twitter.com/LtELZpAGz1
A lot has changed in the past five years since that colossal failure and after routing the Miami Dolphins 56-19 in Week 17, the Ravens clinched both the division crown and the No. 1 seed in the AFC. As familiar as this situation and season feels in many aspects, the two teams are different in even more ways, which should inspire confidence that history won’t repeat itself and the Ravens will finally be able to exercise the demons of one the most infamous shortcomings in franchise history.
“It was just a disappointment. We did our best. [It was] a certain kind of a season,” Ravens Head Coach John Harbaugh said Monday. “It’s different from this season; it’s a different team; [it’s] different circumstances; [it’s a] different, everything except the record is about the same and [earning] the [first-round] bye.
“I remember the experience and the choices we made, but the decisions we made, we made for certain reasons, and we thought they were the right decision. What impacted what [and] how in terms of us not playing our best football that day, it’s really hard to say what the cause and effect was. We just didn’t. We didn’t go out there, and we didn’t do it. That’s the thing I kind of take from it the most. Of course, you want to be better. We have to play way better than that next game if we want to win, and we do want to win. But you have to look at everything from the framework or through the lens of today – this team and the challenges that we’re facing – and that’s what we’ll try to do.”
Here are five reasons that the 2023 top-seeded Ravens differ from the 2019 team, and why having concerns that they could meet the same fate should be quelled:
Ravens are peaking at the right time
After an uneven 2-2 start, the 2019 Ravens hit their stride and were clicking on all cylinders about midway through the season. It started with a 30-16 win over the Seattle Seahawks in Week 7 ahead of their bye. From Week 9 until the regular season finale, when they held out several starters and still managed to sweep the Pittsburgh Steelers, that team outscored their next nine opponents nearly threefold by a combined 317-126. During that overwhelming dominant 10-game winning streak, they only had two games that were decided by less than two scores.
That team didn’t take long to mesh, and find their stride, and seemed like they were almost in cruise control down the stretch as they steamrolled everyone in their path and broke several league records along the way.
This year’s team has had impressive wins and frustrating losses during their first 10 games to open the season but are playing their best and most complementary football at the perfect time having been in playoff mode for over a month. Their winning streak is the longest active in the league at six in a row and they’ve outscored their opponents by nearly 100 points, 203-106, during a daunting stretch against some of the best competition in the league.
“I’m not sure exactly how to define it, but I think you know it when you see it,” Head Coach John Harbaugh said after Sunday’s win. “That’s pretty remarkable. I don’t think it’s ever been done in the history of the National Football League, what these guys have done in that sense. It’s amazing. It’s something that they’ll have for the rest of their careers. We all will, but there’s a lot of work to be done still. We’re looking forward to the challenge.”
Lamar Jackson has been fully unleashed
Five years ago, the Ravens’ franchise signal caller took the league by storm and shattered records in his first season as the full-time starter on his way to being voted league MVP unanimously.
At the time, it was hard for many to imagine that he could ever surpass that elite level of play, production, and efficiency ever again. However, after years of maturation and advancement in offensive philosophies under Todd Monken as offensive coordinator, Jackson reached a new stratosphere of elite this year.
While Jackson told reporters in his postgame press conference that the only difference he sees between 2019 and 2023 is his age and the roster around him, the humble two-time Pro Bowler is selling himself well short. His growth and refinement as quarterback, especially as a passer from the pocket, has been tremendously masterful. Lamar has set career highs in passing yards (3,678), completion percentage (67.2), yards per attempt, and the second-highest passer rating of his career to date (102.7).
The game-changing plays he has put on tape throughout the season with both his arm and legs have not only led to weekly highlight reels worthy of Canton but also have him well deserving of receiving his second career league MVP honor. However, he couldn’t care less about accumulating any more lofty individual accolades. Jackson’s steely-eyed focus remains locked in on one goal and that’s delivering on his draft day promise to bring a Super Bowl back to Baltimore.
“The last two seasons, I wasn’t able to fight with my team,” Jackson said. “I had to do it from the sideline and just cheer guys on, but I’m grateful for the opportunity and [that] we’re the No 1. seed now. We just have to finish this season how we’re supposed to.”
Balanced offense and adaptable defense
In 2019, the Ravens dominated on offense with a revolutionary rushing attack that rewrote franchise and long-standing league records. It was built around Jackson’s electric dual-threat play-making ability. Former offensive coordinator Greg Roman was named Assistant Coach of the Year and even interviewed for the Cleveland Browns head coach vacancy that offseason. His unit was the most dominant and punishing running game in the league that condensed the field and made opposing defense have to fight the Ravens in a phone booth.
Under Monken and with upgraded weapons at wide receiver, the offense has been modernized but still has managed to stay true to their strong rushing roots that still incorporate on Roman’s concepts. Not only does Monken empower Jackson and give him the freedom to audible and sometimes even call his own plays, he forces defenses to have to defend the entirety of the field from side line to sideline laterally as well as vertically.
One of the biggest gripes for many critics when it comes to their reasoning why the Ravens have yet to advance past the division round despite having a generational talent under center is a lack of balance between the run and pass. They believe that the team lacked an adequate counterpunch in the form of a sophisticated passing attack in particular and Monken has provided all of the above.
The Ravens dial-up and execute more screens to their explosive playmakers in space, run the ball out of spread formations as well as they do in 12 and 13 personnel, and aggressively try to stretch the field, which finally appears to be clicking more consistently if their win over the Dolphins was any indication.
SEVENTY-FIVE YARD TOUCHDOWN FOR ZAY FLOWERS!!!!!— Baltimore Ravens (@Ravens) December 31, 2023
Tune in on CBS! pic.twitter.com/1rxQdgbKGf
In just his second year on the job, Ravens defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald has proven he is one of the brightest up-and-coming coaches in the league. He has matched wits and bested several of the best offensive play callers in this year including Ben Johnson, Kyle Shanahan, and most recently, Mike McDaniel. His unit held the NFC North champion Detroit Lions to six points and in back-to-back weeks, kept the top two scoring offenses in the league to just 19 points a piece in wins over the NFC-leading San Francisco 49ers on Christmas and the AFC East-leading Dolphins on New Year’s Eve.
Macdonald’s unit ranks first in takeaways (29), sacks (57), fewest points per game allowed (16.4), fewest total points allowed (363), fewest yards per passing attempt (5.8), and second in fewest yards per play (4.6). Much like in the case of Jackson’s ironclad MVP candidacy, the stats alone don’t tell the full story of just how impressive Macdonald has been as a play designer and caller this season.
Where he shines the brightest is when it comes to the creative pressures and deceptive coverages that he schemes up each week. Whether it’s simulating pressure and dropping more defenders into coverage, showing overloading pressure from one side of the line to get them to slide protection and leave a free rusher off the opposite, or displaying one coverage pre-snap and checking into something entirely different after the ball is snapped, Macdonald has been a mastermind this season.
One of his best attributes is how he is able to put every player in their best position to succeed while maintaining the same level of production and high standard of dominance. His unit has had to play without Pro Bowlers and other key starters for stretches and instead of making excuses and falling apart at the seams, he helped multiple players step up at all three levels.
He will likely win Assistant Coach of the Year and get hired as a head coach elsewhere this offseason, unless the team can convince him to stay by setting up a succession plan and making him one of the highest-paid play callers in the league.
Perfect blend of ascending youth and veteran experience
While the 2019 Ravens had several key veteran contributors on both sides of the ball, their top playmakers were still young players in their first or second years in the league. Jackson was still in just his second year in the league, as was tight end Mark Andrews who also broke out that year, offensive tackle Orlando Brown Jr., and their leading wide receiver was a rookie Marquise Hollywood Brown. As crucial to the fabric and success of their offense as Pro Bowl running back Mark Ingram and future Hall of Famer Marshal Yanda were on offense, the unit as a whole was very young and inexperienced.
The defense had more veterans with a wealth of talent and experience as well but also had young talent on rookie deals who were having breakout seasons but didn’t have extensive playoff experience. Thanks to the incredible patience and savvy of Ravens general manager Eric DeCosta between March and deep into training camp and even the early portion of the regular season, this is perhaps the most complete roster ever assembled in franchise history with the perfect blend of hungry youth and experienced veterans.
At wide receiver, Jackson has standout first-round rookie Zay Flowers, who leads the team in targets, receptions, and receiving yards, three-time Pro Bowler Odell Beckham Jr., who has come on strong in the second half of the season, 2021 first-rounder Rashod Bateman who has battled adversity to routinely makes clutch grabs, and veteran Nelson Agholor who, won a Super Bowl in 2017 and has been a key cog in the offense this season. They also have blossoming second-year tight end Isaiah Likely who has stepped up and produced in a big way since Andrews went down with an ankle injury in mid-November.
The offensive line features rising star Tyler Linderbaum at center, who is having a phenomenal second season and stalwart veteran right guard Kevin Zeitler, who is having his best season at 33 years old. Bookend veteran tackles Ronnie Stanley and Morgan Moses have battled through injuries for stretches this season but have looked stronger the past couple of weeks. Fourth-year pro John Simpson went from longshot to make the roster to winning the starting left guard spot in training camp, and brings a nasty edge to the unit.
Despite losing J.K. Dobbins in the season opener and explosive undrafted rookie Keaton Mitchell a few weeks ago, the Ravens continue to get impressive production from their veteran backfield. Gus Edwards leads the team with a career-high 13 rushing touchdowns and Justice Hill is coming off a game where he recorded over 200 all-purpose yards against the Dolphins.
The defense has several players, both young and seasoned, who are having career years at all three levels. In the trenches, fourth-year defensive tackle Justin Madubuike leads the team and all interior defensive linemen with 13 sacks, while edge defenders Jadeveon Clowney, Kyle Van Noy, and Odafe Oweh have either surpassed, tied, or are encroaching on new career highs in sacks as well. Despite not joining the team until September, Van Noy has been instrumental as a leader who has played in three Super Bowls in the past eight years, winning two.
At the second level, the Ravens have the best inside linebacker tandem in the league with All-Pro veteran Roquan Smith and fourth-year breakout star Patrick Queen. The pair has combined for nearly 300 total tackles and five sacks, and each of them has recorded an interception and forced fumble. They’re the physical tone-setters for the entire unit and make life a nightmare for offenses that rely on throwing the ball over the middle of the field to find success.
In the backend, the brightest star has been second-year safety Kyle Hamilton who is the most indispensable piece that unlocks the entire scheme with the plays he makes from either his nickel or traditional safety spot. Third-year pro Brandon Stephens has emerged as a lockdown corner and has been the Ravens’ No. 1 option at the position for stretches when three-time Pro Bowler Marlon Humphrey was out with an injury. Fourth-year safety Geno Stone has emerged as one of the best ball hawks in the league and ranks second in the NFL with a team-leading and career-high seven interceptions. The Ravens have also gotten tremendous contributions from veteran cornerbacks Arthur Maulet and Ronald Darby, who didn’t join the team until training camp.
Ravens are much more battle-tested and the AFC is ripe for the picking
This year’s team has had to undergo and overcome a lot more adversity on their way to becoming widely recognized as the league’s best team compared to 2019 when they were one of the healthiest teams all year and won 12 games in a row heading into the playoffs. They’ve had to overcome several obstacles from close games that resulted in dramatic finishes to gut-wrenching losses that were a result of blown leads and a cluster of mistakes.
Not even notable injuries to prominent players that either ended their respective seasons or put them out of commission for stretches have been able to slow this team down. They have learned from their past mistakes and found a way to coach, scheme, and play their way through any and all setbacks, both major and minor.
If there ever was a year for the Ravens to break through and win it all, this appears to be their golden opportunity given the state of the rest of the conference. The AFC has literally been beating each other down over the course of the season to the point where franchise quarterbacks such as Joe Burrow, Justin Herbert, and Deshaun Watson are all on injured reserve and Trevor Lawernce finally missed his first career game this past week despite having dealt with a myriad of injuries throughout all year. The Dolphins are banged up on both sides of the ball and the defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs appear as vulnerable as they have ever looked in the Patrick Mahomes era.
There likely won’t be a better chance for the Ravens to go all the way than the 2023 postseason. They’ve proven that they are the best team in the regular season again and are poised to do the same in January as they make a push to be playing in February.