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PRESTON: With playoff berth secured, it’s time for Ravens to prove they can take next step

MIKE PRESTON
The Baltimore Sun (TNS)
Baltimore Ravens cornerback Marcus Peters (24) intercepts a pass in the end zone intended for Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green (18) during the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Jan. 3, 2021, in Cincinnati. (AP Photo/Bryan Woolston)

Now, the true season begins for the Ravens.

So far, it’s been about living up to expectations. The Ravens crushed the Cincinnati Bengals, 38-3, on Sunday to clinch a No. 5 seed in the playoffs and will face the AFC South champion — the Indianapolis Colts or Tennessee Titans — on the road next weekend for a wild-card game.

The Ravens finished the regular season 11-5, which is pretty good, but expected. So was a third straight playoff berth. Now it’s time for this franchise to take the next step.

They’ve been one-and-done in the playoffs for two straight years and anything short of at least one postseason win will be considered a failure by a lot of fans. That might sound unfair for the Ravens, who are still one of the youngest teams in the NFL, but those are the lofty expectations they’ve set for themselves.

“Man, when you’re a part of this organization, you’ve got some big shoes to fill anyway, with just the history and what it stands for,” cornerback Marcus Peters said. “It stands for defense, it stands for toughness, and it’s together. That’s the best thing, is that we all come together, and we’ve got a team full of tough players who are going to go to battle, and who are going to scratch and claw for each other.

“We’re not done; we’re just getting started. What we went through earlier made us to be where we’re at now, and it’s unified. We’ve got a goal, and the goal isn’t going to be complete until all of us get it done.”

Something to prove: The pressure was high after the Ravens’ 12-game winning streak to end the 2019 regular season, which secured the NFL’s best record and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.

Then the Ravens turned in a dud in a 28-12 loss to the Tennessee Titans in a divisional-round game. That result would have been acceptable in some ways, but the Ravens also lost to the Los Angeles Chargers, 23-17, in the wild-card round the previous season.

The only person to have more meltdowns lately than the Ravens is President Donald Trump. This team has something to prove to itself, the NFL and the city of Baltimore.

Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson (8) passes against the Cincinnati Bengals during the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Jan. 3, 2021, in Cincinnati. (AP Photo/Aaron Doster)

Lots of pressure: The Ravens can say there isn’t any pressure, but there has to be. The knock on third-year quarterback Lamar Jackson is that he can’t win playoff games with his arm or throw outside the numbers if the team falls behind.

Jackson is 0-2 in the playoffs, but he is not totally at fault. Offensive coordinator Greg Roman has panicked and gone away from the game plan early in recent playoff losses. It’s “show me” time for Roman as well.

On a tear: The Ravens have gone on another tear during this five-game winning streak. Jackson has returned to his league Most Valuable Player form. The rushing attack has found needed muscle and durability, led by rookie running back J.K. Dobbins and third-year player Gus Edwards. The offensive line has found a groove, even though it still struggles in pass protection, and Jackson’s improvisation skills are the best in the NFL.

On defense, the Ravens seem to be peaking and getting some key players back in the lineup healthy, such as linemen Calais Campbell and Brandon Williams and cornerback Marcus Peters.

Sense of urgency: The Ravens had to play with a sense of urgency this season compared with a year ago. It was basically “win or go home” for the past five games. You want a team to have that kind of edge going into the postseason.

“Like I said before, you’ve got to take advantage of your opportunities. You never know when you’re going to get them again. You’ve got to play like there’s no tomorrow,” receiver Marquise Brown said. “So, I feel like that’s how we’re approaching it, and that’s how we’re going to continue to approach it going forward.

“It’s a whole new season that we’re starting, so everybody is 0-0. We’re just going to come out here and play the brand of football that we’re going to play, and we’re going to see what happens.”

Evaluating Ravens is difficult:  It’s hard to evaluate how good the Ravens have become. Despite running up a lot of points and yards on offense and burying the opposition on defense during the winning streak, they have beaten some of the worst teams in the NFL, including the Jacksonville Jaguars, New York Giants and Bengals.

Were the Ravens peaking or just collecting style points?

In the AFC, there are only two teams better than the Ravens: the Kansas City Chiefs and Buffalo Bills.

But Tennessee has beaten them in the past two meetings, including a 30-24 overtime victory in Week 11.

Window may be closing: The Ravens are aware of that and it has to be lodged in the back of their heads. So is last season, when team administrators and fans were making plans for a possible Super Bowl berth.

With young players such as Jackson, Edwards, tight end Mark Andrews, offensive tackle Orlando Brown Jr. and guard Bradley Bozeman bidding for another contract in a year or two, the window for winning a title might be closing soon.

The time to take that next step — advancing in the postseason — is now. Anything short of a playoff victory would be a major disappointment.