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PRESTON: Ravens need to stay confident, but not cocky, during final playoff push

MIKE PRESTON
The Baltimore Sun (TNS)
Baltimore Ravens linebacker Matthew Judon (99) celebrates safety sack with cornerback Marlon Humphrey (44) during the first half of an NFL football game against the Jacksonville Jaguars, Sunday, Dec. 20, 2020, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Terrance Williams)

The Baltimore Ravens’ top two upcoming opponents are the Ravens themselves.

They crushed the Jacksonville Jaguars, 40-14, on Sunday and will close the regular season with a home game against the New York Giants (5-8) and road contest against the Cincinnati Bengals (2-10-1). The Ravens (9-5) need to win the final two games to stay in playoff contention.

Along the way, the Ravens need a loss from the Miami Dolphins (10-4), Indianapolis Colts (10-4) or Cleveland Browns (9-4), but they can’t do anything about those outcomes. Their focus has to be on themselves, and they can’t afford to get overconfident and complacent. They also need to get healthy.

The Ravens have won three straight against the Dallas Cowboys, Cleveland and Jacksonville, but only the Browns had a winning record. In the win over Cleveland, the Ravens gave up 42 points and allowed almost 500 yards of total offense.

It’s great that the team is winning, but it’s hard to tell whether it is peaking or just playing some of the worst teams in the NFL. But it seems as if the Ravens are keeping it in perspective.

“We’ve just got to keep focused on what we have in front of us,” quarterback Lamar Jackson said. “We’ve got the Giants in front of us now. We’ve got to focus on those guys, get on the film, and watch those guys and pray next week, the ones we need to lose, lose, because we’ve still got to try to get to the playoffs — that’s our goal. But one game at a time. We can’t peak too soon.”

Proceed with caution: The Ravens entered Sunday with the No. 1 running game in the NFL and they pounded the Jaguars for 159 rushing yards on 37 carries. But in two of their past three wins, the Ravens played two of the league’s worst run defenses in Dallas and Jacksonville. The Browns had a strong front four, but once you got past that unit, the linebackers and secondary were very poor.

So, with the Ravens, proceed with caution.

They made a good move by playing young running backs Gus Edwards and J.K. Dobbins ahead of Mark Ingram II, and center Patrick Mekari has allowed the Ravens to make better combination blocks in the middle and get to opposing defenders on the second level.

But could the Ravens be as dominant against a playoff team such as the Buffalo Bills? Right now, they don’t care, and that’s a good attitude to have.

“It’s pretty simple; the mentality is, ‘The next game.’ Playing your best the next game, playing your best the next play, to make sure that we put ourselves in the best position at the end of the year,” left tackle Orlando Brown Jr. said.

“Yes, little passes here and there, little runs here and there that we could’ve finished a lot better — done a lot better,” Jackson said. “There’s always room for improvement. We want to play perfect games, but hopefully we can sooner or later. Just keep building and staying focused on the assignment, and we’ll be fine.”

Keep the right frame of mind: The Ravens need to keep that attitude, work ethic and sense of urgency. They are still a young team. A year ago at this time, the only questions surrounding this team were whether coach John Harbaugh would play his starters in the final few games, how much airplane tickets to the Super Bowl in Miami would cost and whether the Ravens would be rusty after securing a first-round bye in the playoffs.

Now, they have to hustle and fight. They have to maintain an edge heading into next week, because if they lose, they are probably finished for the year.

Time to heal: With the remaining schedule being so light, it should allow some players time to heal. On Sunday, Harbaugh held out starting cornerback Marcus Peters (calf), nickel back Jimmy Smith (shoulder and ribs) and defensive end Calais Campbell (calf).

Starting nose tackle Brandon Williams had struggled with an ankle injury in recent weeks but played perhaps his best game of the year Sunday. He got a lot of penetration in the backfield to disrupt Jacksonville’s running game and finished with five tackles.

He was a force again, and so was the Ravens’ run defense. The Ravens also finally got a strong game from end/outside linebacker Yannick Ngakoue, who had two sacks.

“This team is resilient,” Williams said. “Definitely, we persevere. We’re grinders, and we keep balling no matter what. We don’t get fazed. We don’t flinch. That’s what I love about this team; we’re a bunch of warriors, and we go out there and do what we have to do. Win, lose or draw, we stay together as a family.”

Playoff run far from over: They’d better, because they can’t start feeling too good about themselves. Christmas came early for some Ravens on Sunday. Besides Ngakoue having two sacks, wide receiver Dez Bryant caught his first touchdown pass in three years and right tackle D.J. Fluker didn’t give up a sack.

It was a good day to pad the statistics, but this playoff run is far from over.

In the remaining time, the Ravens can’t beat themselves.