On Wednesday, Ravens coach John Harbaugh called the team’s bye week “good for us.” A day later, outside linebacker Jadeveon Clowney disagreed.
“I wish we didn’t have no bye,” he said, grinning. “I wish we would have kept that thing rolling.”
After one of the NFL’s latest bye weeks, the Ravens (9-3) will get back to work Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium. They’ll need to get back to rolling, too. A visit by the surging Los Angeles Rams (6-6) kicks off perhaps the NFL’s most difficult remaining schedule, a five-week stretch rich with playoff implications.
Here’s what to watch in the Ravens’ Week 14 matchup.
1. Before almost every drop-back early in practice Thursday, Ravens support staffers would stand over the ball, a squeeze bottle in hand, and douse it in water. A storm was coming to Baltimore this weekend, and the Ravens wanted to be prepared.
“We’re a ball-handling offense, so we have to handle the ball in wet weather,” Harbaugh said Wednesday. “That’s going to be important to us. We’ll be keeping that in mind, and it’ll be big for them, too. They have to do the same thing. They play in the same weather that we do. … You have to win the game in every type of circumstance, and the elements are a big part of it.”
As of Thursday night, forecasts called for steady rain throughout Sunday to intensify Sunday evening, with gusts from 35 mph to 45 mph possible.
That inclement weather could favor the Ravens, if only because of Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford’s relative inexperience. According to TruMedia, he last played in a game with rainy conditions at kickoff in 2017, when he went 19-for-35 (54.3%) for 203 yards, a touchdown and an interception as the Cincinnati Bengals beat Stafford’s Detroit Lions 26-17.
The Ravens’ Lamar Jackson, meanwhile, has played in five games with rainy conditions at kickoff since 2019, the third most of an NFL quarterback in that span. He’s completed 56.8% of his passes for 174 yards per game and thrown six touchdowns and three interceptions. He’s also averaged 80 rushing yards per game and 6.1 yards per carry in those rainy matchups. Ball security has been a weakness, though; Jackson has fumbled eight times, losing four.
“I just go out there and play football,” said Jackson, who missed practice Thursday but is expected to play Sunday. “I can’t do [anything] about the rain or the wind. Just get prepared. Mind over matter.”
2. The first three questions Odell Beckham Jr. heard at his news conference Wednesday were about the Rams. The fourth was about the path ahead for the Ravens.
“Sitting here now at 9-3, [we] definitely know that there’s an opportunity,” he said.
An opportunity for the Ravens to win their division. An opportunity to make a deep playoff run. And an opportunity for Beckham, perhaps, to look more and more like he did when he helped lead the Rams to the Super Bowl two years ago.
Beckham’s first two months in Baltimore were marred by fits and starts. He had just 14 catches for 162 yards in six games, missing two because of an ankle injury he suffered in Week 2. In a Week 8 win over the Arizona Cardinals, Beckham drew three penalties but was held without a catch for the first time in his career in a full NFL game.
The past month has been far more promising. Beckham had his first touchdown catch as a Raven in Week 9, scored again one week later, then had four catches for 116 yards in a Week 11 win over the Cincinnati Bengals. Since Week 9, despite a minor shoulder injury that limited him against the Los Angeles Chargers in Week 12, Beckham’s averaged an incredible 3.93 yards per route run, according to Pro Football Focus. Among wide receivers with at least 10 targets in that span, only the Houston Texans’ Noah Brown (4.92 yards) has been better.
“He’s a heck of a football player,” Harbaugh said Wednesday of Beckham, who signed a one-year, $15 million deal with the Ravens this past offseason. “He draws a lot of attention. He’s making plays, and he’s really coming into his own, health-wise, right now and getting strong and faster. … You see it every single week. You guys watch the game; there’s an explosive element to what he’s doing. He can really go. I know he’s going to make a bunch of big plays down in the stretch here.”
3. Ravens inside linebacker Roquan Smith joked Wednesday that he doesn’t need much of a scouting report on Stafford. He watched him play at Georgia, where Smith went on to star himself. Then, after the Chicago Bears drafted Smith in 2018, he battled Stafford’s Lions for three years in the NFC North.
“He’s definitely a gunslinger,” Smith said, “so I’m excited for the matchup.”
The Ravens just can’t give Stafford the time to find his aim. In the Rams’ win Sunday over the Cleveland Browns, their third straight overall, Stafford wasn’t sacked. He was hit just twice. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he finished 22-for-37 (59.5%) for 279 yards and three touchdowns against an elite Browns defense.
The gap in quality between an unhurried Stafford and a hurried Stafford is as wide as any quarterback’s in the league. According to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats, on drop-backs this season when Stafford hasn’t been pressured, he’s completed 66.1% of his passes and averaged 0.18 expected points added — about Patrick Mahomes’ level of efficiency for the Kansas City Chiefs this year.
On drop-backs when Stafford has been pressured, though, he’s completed barely over half of his passes (51.1%), and his average EPA is minus-0.17 — about where Bryce Young has performed in his rookie year for the Carolina Panthers.
“Knowing that Stafford is protected, he can do a lot of great things with his arm,” Smith said. “Definitely got to get after him, though. That’s our plan, and we’re going to do everything in our power, and we’re just going to make sure we come out, play our style of defense. We feel, if we do that, everything else will take care of itself.”
4. As Ravens players scattered during last week’s bye, coaches hunkered down in Owings Mills and started working ahead. Three of the NFL’s best-designed offenses were still on the schedule. And they all happened to have the same schematic lineage.
Rams coach Sean McVay, San Francisco 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan and Miami Dolphins coach Mike McDaniel are among the most prominent branches of Mike Shanahan’s extensive coaching tree. The legacy of the former Broncos coach, who won two Super Bowls in Denver, has only grown over the years, with more and more offenses built around the outside-zone running schemes that he and offensive line coach Alex Gibbs popularized.
Even as the NFL’s various Shanahan-inspired schemes have diverged, the Rams’, 49ers’ and Dolphins’ offenses still find ways to end up on common ground. One of their most interesting similarities this year: They’re among the league leaders in presnap-motion usage.
“I wouldn’t call it a litmus test, because it’s such a week-to-week thing,” Ravens defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald said Thursday of facing the Rams before the 49ers and Dolphins. “It’s hard to say, ‘Hey, we’re going to do these things [however] many weeks from now,’ just because the team changes, and what you feel like you’re good at is just kind of a constant evolution. However, it is good to know what’s coming down the pike.”
5. As the Ravens push for home-field advantage in a crowded AFC, they’ll find no real margin for error over the next five weeks. But, if they were to fall, a loss Sunday, or on Christmas Day to the 49ers, wouldn’t be catastrophic.
Because of the NFL’s playoff tiebreakers, which value head-to-head results and conference records, the Ravens’ most consequential games are their final three against AFC opponents: the Jacksonville Jaguars (Week 15), the Dolphins (Week 17) and the Pittsburgh Steelers (Week 18).
Consider how differently the next two weeks could play out. According to The New York Times’ playoff picture, if the Ravens beat the Rams but lose to the Jaguars, their chances of claiming the AFC’s top seed would fall from about 28% to about 13%. But if the Ravens fall to the Rams and top the Jaguars, those odds would drop to only about 22%.
A 4-1 finish with three wins against AFC opponents would make the Ravens heavy favorites to claim home-field advantage, according to the Times. A 4-1 finish with a loss to the Dolphins, however, would flip those probabilities.