By Demetrius Dillard
Special to the AFRO
Just a few weeks ago, the Baltimore Ravens’ future seemed uncertain. But after culminating the regular season with one of their most remarkable performances, they are on their way back to the playoffs for the third consecutive year.
Riddled with season-ending injuries and a COVID-19 outbreak at a crucial point in the season, the Ravens embodied determination and perseverance in the face of adversity to end the regular season on a five-game winning streak to clinch a No. 5 seed in the upcoming NFL playoffs.
To conclude the regular season, Baltimore squared off against AFC North opponent Cincinnati Bengals. Quarterback Lamar Jackson and running back J.K. Dobbins were at the forefront of a rushing outburst as the Ravens annihilated the Bengals, 38-3, on Jan. 3 at Paul Brown Stadium.
“We have a lot of faith in our guys and their effort, toughness and how hard they work. We just believe in our players. I’m proud of them for it,” Coach John Harbaugh said.
“I love where this team is right now. I love us going into the playoffs in this scenario at this time. I’m excited about it, and I really can’t wait to get to work tomorrow morning,” he added.
For the past five weeks in particular, the Ravens have emerged as the most formidable rushing threat in the league. In the regular season finale, they recorded a franchise record 404 rushing yards, reaffirming their dominance as an near-unstoppable force in the ground game.
The Bengals (4-11-1) won their last two contests, but were never able to find any consistency on offense down the stretch and had no answer for Baltimore’s rushing scheme.
Jackson rushed for 97 yards giving him 1,005 total for this year, making him the only quarterback in NFL history to have multiple 1,000-yard rushing seasons. The record-setting performance came a year after he broke Michael Vick’s single-season rushing record for a quarterback.
The outcome on Sunday was slightly worse than when Baltimore and Cincinnati faced off on Oct. 11 during Week 5 as the Ravens cruised past the Bengals 27-3. This time around, Baltimore seemed more confident and had momentum working to their advantage.
Dobbins had another explosive day, rushing for two touchdowns on 13 carries for 160 yards. The highlight of the afternoon is when he took a handoff, cut through the middle and weaved his way left for a scintillating 72-yard touchdown run at the end of the third quarter.
Ravens set to rematch against Titans in Wild Card playoff round
Baltimore closes the regular season with an 11-5 overall record and as the leading rushing team in the NFL this season with 3,071 yards (191.9 per game), nearly 400 more than the second-place Tennessee Titans.
Speaking of the Titans – Baltimore will prepare to take on its AFC nemesis to kick off the postseason. Ironically, the Ravens played against the Titans in the opening wild card round of the playoffs last season and lost, 28-12, to bring a disheartening end to a historic 2019-20 season. When the Ravens tried to redeem themselves this season, they fell short again, losing to the Titans 30-24 in a closely contested overtime duel on Nov. 22.
“We have to win now. It’s win or go home, and that’s what it’s been for the past few weeks,” Jackson said, looking forward to the playoff challenge.
“We know what we can do, we just got to keep it going. That’s all it is right now for us.”
The No. 4 seed Tennessee Titans, who clinched the AFC South, rely heavily on the ground game just as the Ravens do. All eyes will be on Titans running back Derrick Henry, a 6-foot-4, 240-pound running machine who breaks tackles and staff-arms defenders with relative ease.
Henry has had another breakout season, rushing for more than 2,000 yards to put himself in elite company among NFL running backs. He gave the Ravens a good deal of trouble in last year’s playoffs, and has only gotten better this season. The Ravens’ defensive front will certainly have an arduous task at hand not only containing Henry, but Pro Bowl quarterback Ryan Tannehill and receiver A.J. Brown.
In many ways, the big win over the Bengals put an exclamation point on a roller-coaster season as Baltimore will get another shot at redemption in the rematch this upcoming Sunday.
The Ravens will head down to Nashville, Tennessee’s Nissan Stadium for the first-round postseason matchup slated for Jan. 10 at 1:05 p.m. The game will be broadcast on ESPN.