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The path ahead for the AFC North is lined with crows looking down from their perch.
Baltimore survived a 19-17 victory Sunday over the rival Cincinnati Bengals thanks to another late-second, game-winning field goal by Justin Tucker. The final result is more important than how the Ravens played throughout the rest of the contest.
A week earlier, Baltimore found a way to lose a meeting with the Buffalo Bills when almost the exact same decision had to be made.
In Week 4, head coach John Harbaugh elected to go for it on 4th-and-goal from the 2-yard line with the game tied at the 20 and 4:15 left in the game. Finally, the Bills picked off Lamar Jackson, drove the ball down the field and kicked the game-winner.
“Well, I felt 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’re going to stop them — but if they go down the field and score a touchdown, the worst that can happen is you’re in overtime,” Harbaugh told reporters.
“But you hit a field goal there, now it’s not a three-down game anymore, it’s a four-down game. And a chance to score seven again, and then you lose the game on a touchdown.
The loss knocked the Ravens down and showed that Baltimore is not in the same league as Josh Allen and Co.
Baltimore Ravens 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)
I got my lesson. On Sunday, Harbaugh opted to punt when faced with a 4th-and-1 from the Cincinnati Bengals’ 3-yard line.
Yes, the Bengals responded with a touchdown on the next drive. However, those earlier points set up the win. Instead of the offense needing a touchdown to win the game if Baltimore hadn’t converted, Tucker split the uprights to take the game and take the lead in the AFC North.
“No one is going to win [a championship] in October,” Harbaugh he said then, “but these games go a long way.”
A division lead between teams in flux is a big deal, even if it’s only by one game in the second month of the season. A quick look 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 pressure. The play-calling, particularly in the red zone, is also very suspect.
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. The breakdowns in coverage, the undisciplined play and the soft front against the run have been exposed several times.
Meanwhile, this year’s Pittsburgh Steelers team might be the organization’s worst in 50 years. The offense is now 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 had Bills coach Sean McDermott not removed 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 2, 2022 in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
Resistance within the section is weak. The same could be said for Baltimore’s overall organization over 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. Each of the Giants’ wins has a score. New coach Brian Daboll is doing wonders, but his team may not be as good as their record suggests.
Two weeks later, the Ravens fly to Tampa and face the Buccaneers. Like Baltimore, Tampa Bay is 3-2, although the Todd Bowles-led roster still features Tom Brady, Mike Evans, Shaquil Barrett and a whole host of talented players. The Bucs may not have been as successful out of the gates as expected, but they are still one of the favorites in the NFC.
Otherwise, no other team on the schedule has a winning record through five weeks of play.
Some obstacles could get in the way. The Jacksonville Jaguars could establish some consistency by the time the two teams meet in Week 12. Russell Wilson could be his old self by next week’s game. Deshaun Watson will be in his third game back from suspension to make the Browns more formidable foes.
But Baltimore still has two games against the lowly Steelers and another against the Carolina Panthers — two teams currently slated for the top two picks in next year’s draft.
Strange results happen every weekend. The Ravens just have to go about their daily lives and handle their business. If that happens, Baltimore will be very much in the AFC postseason picture as a Super Bowl contender.
Why cant it be?
Jackson is an MVP candidate. Granted, Allen seems to have starred in that particular matchup over the last two weeks. Still, Jackson remains one of the league’s most potent weapons.
Even when Baltimore’s passing game isn’t hitting — as it was Sunday when Jackson missed two wide open targets deep that would have resulted in touchdowns — the offense can lean on its creativity and run the play, starting with its quarterback.
Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson (8) runs the ball during the fourth quarter of an 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 he said. “That’s why everyone loves him.”
Offensive coordinator Greg Roman can add some wrinkles, like making Devin Duvernay a bigger part of the scheme. Duvernay lined up in the backfield, moved along the offense and took multiple build-up touches.
As the weeks progress, left tackle Ronnie Stanley will eventually resume a full-time role. He’ll be more comfortable after suffering a season-ending ankle injury last season. His presence will help bolster Baltimore’s front five and set up the entire offense.
Finally, leading receiver Rashod Bateman will also return. The second year goal is currently recovery from a leg injury.
Sunday’s performance also provided a glimmer of hope for the Ravens’ defense. The secondary ranked dead last in giving up 315.2 yards per game before the team’s latest effort. The Bengals’ talented aerial attack managed a net total of just 190 yards.
The defensive front could hold up better against Joe Mixon, but the trade-off is one Baltimore will surely receive. A conservative defensive approach with soft zone shells forces opposing offenses to be precise without a tendency to allow big plays.
“There’s nothing on the field if teams are going to play us like they did today,” Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow said. declare yourself.
The Ravens can’t pick up the corpses of their opponents throughout the rest of their regular season schedule. However, the killing began to circle.
With the landing, Baltimore can once again be in the thick of things along with the Bills and Kansas City Chiefs.
Brent Sobleski covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @brentsobleski.