Allegany Communications Sports

The Baltimore Ravens’ 23-7 win at Jacksonville Sunday night was one of grit. In obvious and subtle ways, it was one of the most impressive wins of a season that has already produced 11 wins in 14 games.

The Baltimore defense, which is one of the best in football, again smothered its opponent, highlighted by the final play of the first half when, with a 10-0 lead, Ravens tackling kept the Jaguars out of the end zone at the 4, which allowed the clock to run out.

Quarterback Lamar Jackson made the critical yet subtle difference offensively as he held the unit on course with his evasiveness, thanks to his offensive line, clutch passing and, yes, his blocking until the running game kicked in in the second half, as the offensive line then found its run-game groove and dominated to free up Gus Edwards to close the door on Jacksonville once and for all.

The game was not without its downside, of course, for if it’s a Ravens game, there is sure to be an injury to a top running back, and Keaton Mitchell was the one who went down with a torn ACL to end his season.

The Ravens will miss his home-run ability, his change of direction and his vision, as in his brief playing time, Mitchell was one of two difference-makers in the Ravens backfield, with Jackson now being the lone one. Edwards, Justice Hill and reactivated Melvin Gordon are all very capable, but none possess the big-play explosion of Mitchell.

The NFL’s latest Power Rankings have the San Francisco 49ers at No. 1, the Ravens No. 2 and the Miami Dolphins No. 4 (surprisingly, Dallas remains at No. 3), and those are the teams the Ravens will play in the next two weeks — at San Francisco on Monday, then home vs. Miami — before closing the regular season at home against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The Ravens, who opened as a 5.5-point underdog to the 49ers, are rolling and clinched a playoff spot with Sunday’s win, but it is possible they could win any and all of the next three games, or they could lose any and all of the next three games, including to slumping Pittsburgh, and don’t laugh. They’ve already lost a game to the Steelers they should have had in the bag by halftime.

No, it’s not the Roethlisberger/Polamalu v. Lewis/Reed Steelers-Ravens, but it’s still Steelers-Ravens and anything can and generally still happens in these games (see seven dropped passes by Baltimore). And by the time that game rolls around, who knows what will be at stake for the Ravens and for the Steelers, given both teams’ circumstances?

After their 30-13 disaster of a loss to the Indianapolis Colts, after they led 13-0, the STEELERS (7-7) are in it deep, real deep; likely deeper in it than at any point of Mike Tomlin’s 17 years as the head coach.

The Steelers have lost three straight, beginning with two home losses to 2-10 teams, with Saturday’s loss to the Colts being the exclamation point of the stretch.

Tomlin said changes will be made, but other than the return of quarterback Kenny Pickett, what changes are there to make at this point? Still, will Pickett be enough to save the season, as he was also part of the problem before he was injured?

The defense remains what bread and butter the team has left, but it’s begun to show the signs of struggle, particularly in the secondary, having had to carry this entire team to this point.

By the time they reach Baltimore on Jan. 7, there’s no telling what there will be for them to play for following this week’s home game with Cincinnati, then a road game at Seattle, making the next two games either damage control or damage done. But after 14 games, the dye is usually cast for a team and a season.

I never feel comfortable counting out the Steelers, but this doesn’t look good.

Then, of course, there are the WASHINGTON COMMANDERS (4-10), who continue to pretty much stay the ugly course this season has taken, but varying from it slightly by benching quarterback Sam Howell with the team down 28-7 in the third quarter to the Los Angeles Rams.

Enter back-up Jacoby Brissett, who brought the team back to the point of the 28-20 final, but even more telling was it took Washington nearly three minutes to score the final touchdown on a first and goal, with penalties and play calling wasting valuable time. By the time the Commanders scored their final touchdown there was just 1:46 remaining, and a Rams first down sealed the outcome.

It’s just evident now that everybody on the coaching staff will be gone, not just head coach Ron Rivera. While Rivera and the team want to win the final three games (not happening), the set-up for the new head coach and GM gets sweeter with every loss; not only the No. 4 draft pick (subject to becoming No. 3), but the team is loaded with high picks in the first three rounds and with gobs of money to spend.

Howell has had his ups and current downs, but at this point it would likely be better to stick with him as the starter so he can continue to gain experience. What’s the point in starting Brissett when he’s on just a one-year contract?

Of course, based on what we saw on Sunday, what was the point in not starting him when the season still mattered?

Mike Burke writes about sports and other stuff for Allegany Communications. He began covering sports for the Prince George’s Sentinel in 1981 and joined the Cumberland Times-News sports staff in 1984, serving as sports editor for over 30 years. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @MikeBurkeMDT