The Baltimore Ravens continued to build momentum in Week 17 when they clinched the AFC North division crown and No. 1 seed with a 56-19 trouncing of the Miami Dolphins. There were several encouraging performances in this AFC heavyweight bout where the Ravens made an even bolder statement than the week before on Christmas against the San Francisco 49ers.
Here are a few noteworthy performances from the team’s Week 17 win that warrant some spicy yet reasonably conceivable takes.
Ravens will be even more dominant in the playoffs
For about the first three-quarters of the season, there was not a true juggernaut or consensus best team in the league before the Ravens began to emerge down the stretch. Now, they find themselves proving to be the best team by a wide margin heading into the playoffs. Perhaps the scariest takeaway from their dominant showing against the Dolphins is that they did it without a handful of key starters and lost a couple more as the game went on.
The Ravens did not have who many believe is their most indispensable defender in second-year star safety Kyle Hamilton and third-year cornerback Brandon Stephens, who has been their most consistent and durable player at the position all season. Despite this, the Ravens were able to shut down the league’s top-scoring offense for the most part. If they were able to hold Tyreek Hill, Tua Tagovailoa, and renowned play-caller Mike McDaniel in check while short-handed, it’s hard to imagine a potential rematch in the postseason winding up with a different result.
On offense, they were without veteran right guard Kevin Zeitler, who was unjustly snubbed from Pro Bowl yet again but third-year pro Ben Cleveland filled in more than admirably. They were also still rotating both of their starting offensive tackles since veterans Ronnie Stanley and Morgan Moses have dealt with ailments for most of the season. A banged-up Ravens roster was still able to soundly beat two of the league’s elite teams in back-to-back weeks and is peaking at the right time. They now have additional time to get healthier at key spots before they have to play their next meaningful game in the divisional round of the playoffs. This should all strike fear into the hearts of every team in AFC and league as a whole.
Lamar Jackson deserves to be voted MVP unanimously again
There’s no doubt that the Ravens’ franchise quarterback wrapped up his second career league MVP honor with his sensational passing performance against the Dolphins. He threw for 321 passing yards, five touchdowns, and a perfect passer rating for the third time in his career.
When he won his first in 2019 after his breakout season in his first as a full-time starter, he joined future Hall of Famer Tom Brady by becoming just the second player ever to be voted MVP unanimously. Last year, the Associated Press switched to a ranked-choice voting format. Each of the 50 voters rank their Top-5 candidates with the lower numbers counting for more points and whoever gets the most, wins the award.
Kansas City Chiefs’ quarterback Patrick Mahomes won his second career league MVP in 2022 by being at the top of 48 of the 50 ballots. While Jackson’s numbers over the course of the season aren’t gaudy or record-shattering, his game film has been off the charts. His influence on the outcome of games is undeniably elite and essential to the Ravens’ success. His performance against the Dolphins was the combination of tap and eye-popping box score counting stats, which should ensure that he gets all 50 first-place votes. He likely won’t, though, because of the biases that some voters will inevitably show.
Jackson has taken the same field as multiple MVP candidates this year and outplayed them all. That includes the past two weeks where he went up against Tagovailoa and Hill on New Year’s Eve and Brock Purdy and Christian McCaffery on Christmas night six days earlier. His most stubborn detractors will always find something to nitpick when it comes to giving him his well-deserved respect but there’s no question who will be at top of every MVP ballot.
This throw off platform...my goodness. Ridiculous ball placement from 8. pic.twitter.com/mRwx12w6TM— Mina Kimes (@minakimes) January 1, 2024
Isaiah Likely is already a Top-10 player at his position
One of the biggest blows the Ravens have been dealt this season was the ankle injury All-Pro tight end Mark Andrews suffered in Week 11. While it’s never ideal for a team to lose their quarterback’s most trusted and reliable weapon, the emergence of second-year pro Isaiah Likely has made his absence hardly noticeable.
Against the Dolphins, he only caught two passes on a mere three targets but they both resulted in touchdowns as he finished with 42 receiving yards. His first catch of the game might’ve been the most impressive of his career thus far. Not only did he snag it with one hand but did so in a high-leverage moment on fourth down just before halftime. Likely proceeded to showcase his dynamic run-after-catch ability by sprinting 35 yards to the end zone and stretching the ball past the pylon to put the Ravens up by two scores.
Likely literally walked into the end zone on his second catch after he chip released to the left while the defense flowed to the right, leaving him uncovered to put the Ravens up by three scores early in the third quarter.
As a rookie, the 2022 fourth-rounder flashed a lot of explosive playmaking potential in the preseason and regular season when Andrews dealt with some minor injuries. In five games since Andrews went down this year, Likely has recorded 19 receptions on 26 targets for 291 receiving yards and all four of his touchdowns. He only had 10 catches on 12 targets for 89 yards and no touchdowns in the first 11 games of the season combined.
“He’s been that way since he got here – making those kinds of plays,” Head Coach John Harbaugh said Monday. “The gameplaying experience – I think has really kind of gotten to the point where he’s been able to take it [and] get the confidence out there and say, ‘Hey, I can really do this in big games.’ He’s been great. It’s been fun to watch.”
Andrews is unquestionably one of the top three tight ends in the entire league when healthy. Likely’s emergence during the final stretch of the regular season has established him as one of the best players at their position. During an era where a lot of young pass-catching tight ends are beginning to blossom, he is proving to be a complete player at the position. Likely is a much-improved blocker both in the run game and downfield for his fellow pass catchers.
Inconsistent run defense remains a concern
The Ravens’ defense has been dominant in almost every aspect of the game this season and lead the league in sacks, takeaways, and points allowed. One area they haven’t been stout in is defending the run, where they rank outside of the Top-10 in rushing yards allowed per game 106.6 and total rushing yards allowed. While they have yielded the fewest rushing touchdowns in the league with just five in 16 games, they’re tied for the fourth-most rushing yards allowed per attempt with 4.5.
During their six-game winning streak, they’ve allowed four opponents to rush for over 120 yards, have held just two of them to under 100 yards rushing, and have given up 100+ yard rushers in three of their last four games. That includes 107 on just 14 carries to Dolphins’ rookie running back De’Von Achane. Thankfully, when they usually get gashed, it’s early on in games. It’s generally been a result of missed tackles, failure to set edges, or defensive linemen allowing offensive linemen to climb to the second level.
Most rushing yards the Ravens have given up as of late have also primarily come in the first half before they tightened up in the second through adjustments. They’ve also benefited how the game scripts have unfolded during this stretch. Opposing teams haven’t been able to commit to the run game even if it’s working because they’ve fallen behind by multiple scores, needing to dig themselves out of a deficit through the air.
A potential rematch with a healthier Dolphins offense, the Cleveland Browns, or the San Francisco 49ers in the Super Bowl could present them with some issues if they don’t get more consistent in setting the edges and fitting the run. Although, having a soon-to-be two-time MVP on the other side of the ball is a great ace in the hole if they happen to continue springing the occasional leak on the ground.
Justice Hill will be Ravens’ biggest X factor in the playoffs
Through his first four years in the league, the fifth-year veteran has had to bide his time and make the most of limited opportunities playing behind established starters and promising youngsters. He established himself as one of the Ravens’ core special teamers and flashed some nice potential with the occasional touch on offense.
Against the Dolphins, Hill showed that he can be just as electric as any running back that the Ravens have had since he’s been on the team. He showcased his dynamic playmaking ability to the tune of 213 all-purpose yards between contributions as a ball carrier, pass catcher, and kick returner.
Hill recorded 48 rushing yards on just three carries including a long of 41 that sparked a fourth-quarter touchdown drive. He led the team in receptions by catching all five of his targets for 64 receiving yards including 38 on the Ravens’ first touchdown drive of the game. He capped off that possession by hauling in a 20-yard reception on a wheel route.
“Justice has really good hands. He’s an excellent route runner. He’s also excellent in pass protection, too,” Harbaugh said Monday. “Lamar saw the coverage, diagnosed it a couple of times and got us into certain routes that freed Justice up on some of those rail routes. That was pretty impressive to see those two guys working together at the line of scrimmage like that.”
As if his offensive contributions weren’t impressive enough, Hill nearly pulled a Jacoby Jones in Super Bowl 47 and opened the third quarter with a 78-yard kick return that set up another eventual touchdown drive.
The way Hill impacted the game while wearing No. 43 was reminiscent of retired three-time Pro Bowler Darren Sproles, who was one of the league’s most dangerous all-purpose weapons during his illustrious 14-year career. Having a playmaker who can generate explosive plays whenever he touches the ball will be a tremendous asset to a potential title run this month and into February.
Despite losing fourth-year J.K. Dobbins in the season opener and undrafted rookie spark plug Keaton Mitchell a few weeks ago, their cupboard is far from bare at running back with Hill. That is truly another testament to the Ravens’ incredible depth assembled by General Manager Eric DeCosta that. They also still have sixth-year veteran Gus Edwards, who has been a touchdown-scoring machine this year with a career-high and team-leading 13 rushing touchdowns.