The Ravens have been here before.
On Christmas Day 2016, they traveled to Pittsburgh with a chance to snatch control of the AFC North from the 9-5 Steelers. They led by three with nine seconds left on the clock when Antonio Brown powered over the goal line to end their playoff hopes.
Their moment of truth came earlier in 2017, on Dec. 10 in Pittsburgh against the 10-2 Steelers. After another thrilling game, they squandered a nine-point lead in the last four minutes to lose, 39-38. Had they won, they would have made the playoffs, even with their season-closing loss to the Cincinnati Bengals.
This year, they’ve already fallen one score short against two of the best teams in the league, the New Orleans Saints and the Kansas City Chiefs. Add either of those games to their current eight-win tally, and they’d lead the AFC North.
These Ravens have demonstrated time and again that they can hang, blow for blow, with the league’s elite. But they’ve repeatedly failed to land the final punch. They’ll have another opportunity Saturday evening against the 11-3 Los Angeles Chargers. If they lose and their chief competitors (the Steelers, the Indianapolis Colts and the Tennessee Titans) all win, the Ravens’ playoff chances will go poof for a fourth consecutive season. They could lose and still slip into the postseason, but they’re almost out of chances.
Beyond setting up a gloomy final week, a loss could signal an abrupt ending for many of the team’s key figures, from quarterback Joe Flacco to linebacker Terrell Suggs to safety Eric Weddle to linebacker C.J. Mosley. Coach John Harbaugh would also face questions about his future despite the fact that he’s kept the team in contention through a change at quarterback and a sweeping shift in offensive philosophy.
If the Ravens view Saturday’s game as a final stand for this version of the team, however, they’re not saying so.
“I think we’ve been playing that way for a large segment of the season,” Weddle said. “We’re at our best when we’re loose and having fun. There’s a belief in this team, a quiet confidence, that if we go play our style, our game, everything will take care of itself. It just feels different than the last couple years here at this point in the season.”
By all reasonable measures, the 2018 Ravens are good. They’ve won four of their past five games. They’ve outscored opponents by 88 points on the season, better than every AFC team except the Chiefs and Chargers. They rank first in the league in total and scoring defense. If analytics are your thing, they rank sixth in Football Outsiders’ DVOA statistic measuring overall efficiency (again, behind only the Chiefs and Chargers in the AFC).
All of that will be forgotten if they don’t get over the hump against the Chargers.
Harbaugh has asked his team to embrace that high-stakes reality. “Make it the toughest possible road that we could have,” he said. “That’s what our guys thrive on.”
The Chargers certainly pose a significant degree of difficulty. They’ve won 10 of their past 11 and are tied with the Chiefs for the best record in the AFC. They’re led by an MVP candidate in quarterback Philip Rivers, and their speedy defense is the best the Ravens have played since rookie Lamar Jackson replaced Flacco at quarterback. On top of everything else, the Ravens had to travel 3,000 miles to play a team benefiting from three extra days of rest (the Chargers last played on Dec. 13, a stirring road win over the Chiefs).
“The thing that’s jumped out to me watching the tape of him, [that] I’m really, really impressed by, is his courage,” Harbaugh said. “He stands in there, and he waits until the last second. He’s not waiting just to wait; he’s waiting because he has something coming open, and he’ll throw it to a spot. Most of the time, it works out well for him. Sometimes you get it. Sometimes you pick it off. He only holds it when he absolutely has to, and he’ll take a sack if he has to. He gets the most out of every play.”
Ravens defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale has made an art of delivering snappy appreciations of opposing quarterbacks. He did not disappoint with his assessment of Rivers: “Phew, he’s good! Really, I mean, in respect to the game, he’s going to go down as one of the greatest. Everybody sees it, everybody knows it. You can’t say that he’s like somebody else; he’s Philip Rivers. I think the young quarterbacks aspire to be like him, the way he has command of the offense.”
The Ravens will answer with Jackson, who’s given them a new face that upends all conventional expectations of a modern NFL offense. They’re the first team since the 1976 Steelers to rush for 190 yards or more in five straight games.
“It’s just night and day from the Ravens offense when Joe was quarterback to now,” Chargers coach Anthony Lynn said. “So it’s challenging, because you don’t see it every week.”
Jackson seems unruffled by the tense context around his sixth NFL start. Of course, he’ll be with the Ravens in 2019, regardless. The same can’t necessarily be said for impending free agents such as Mosley and Suggs or for veterans such as Flacco, Weddle, Jimmy Smith and Marshal Yanda, who could all move on if the franchise chooses a full reset in the offseason.
A consensus seems to be forming that no one wants to face the Ravens — with their deep, versatile defense and relentless, creative running attack — in the playoffs. But that growing appreciation won’t help them get to January. They’ll likely have to beat the Chargers and then, eight days later, the rapidly improving Cleveland Browns.
“Let’s not worry about all the different scenarios,” safety Tony Jefferson said. “Every game, right now, we’ve got to treat it like the playoffs. … I just think we’ve got a resilient group. I’m not going to get all into what we did last year or the years before and what’s different. I just think this group here, we’re not backing down from anything, regardless of what’s in front of us. We know we can hang with anybody in this league. We’ve already proved that.”
They just need to take the script one step further, and they have precious little time to do it.