The Ravens' playoff push took a major step forward with a resounding 26-16 win at the Atlanta Falcons Dec. 2 as Lamar Jackson improved to 3-0 as the team's starting quarterback. The formula that has worked throughout Jackson's brief tenure as the starter -- ball control offense and relentless play by a rested defense -- again proved to be a winning combination.
Here are five quick impressions of the victory, which leaves the Ravens at 7-5 with four games remaining:
1. The defense was tremendous at every level.
The Ravens have had some defensive highlights this year, recording a franchise-record 11 sacks at Tennessee and holding the Pittsburgh Steelers scoreless in the second half at Heinz Field. But this was the best overall performance of the season from defensive coordinator Don "Wink" Martindale's crew, with stellar play at every level.
The stout group up front led by Michael Pierce and Brandon Williams destroyed a run on 4th-and-1 in the first half, dropping Ito Smith for a 1-yard loss. Falcons finished with 15 carries for 34 yards.
The linebackers registered three sacks, none bigger than the one by Patrick Onwausor that caused a fumble, which was returned 12 yards for a touchdown by Tavon Young. Terrell Suggs, at age 36, had a sack and three of the hits on Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan.
And the secondary was sensational in containing NFL receiving leader Julio Jones. Jones entered the game averaging about 7.5 catches and 119 receiving yards a game. He finished with two catches for 18 yards on eight targets. Calvin Ridley, who came in with 625 receiving yards, had three catches for 22 yards. The Ravens totally shut down the Falcons' passing attack for large stretches of the game, with solid coverage on the outside and help from the safeties, along with creative blitzing that disrupted Ryan's timing all day.
2. The quarterback controversy hasn't really gone away.
At this point, some would consider it heresy to suggest that Joe Flacco regain the starting quarterback job. After all, Jackson has led the Ravens to a 3-0 record filling in for the injured Flacco. Jackson deserves a lot of credit for leading this offense to another win, especially a critical game on the road, but it certainly was not always a smooth performance.
To be sure, Jackson's legs are a game-changer, as he showed with 17 carries for 75 yards and a 13-yard touchdown. But the passing game remains a work in progress. Jackson badly overthrew a wide-open John Brown on what could have been a touchdown, and he finished 12-for-21 for 125 yards.
With Jackson, though, more concerning than a missed completion here or there were three first-half fumbles, one of which was returned 74 yards for a touchdown that gave Atlanta an early 10-7 lead. The Ravens were fortunate that they didn't turn the ball over on the other two fumbles.
The Ravens again relied on their ground game to eat up huge chunks of the clock in the second half, and that has been the formula for winning throughout Jackson's three-game tenure as the starter.
The belief was that another win would solidify Jackson's position as the team's starting quarterback, regardless of Flacco's health. Did this offensive performance do that? Who is under center when the Ravens visit the cauldron that is Arrowhead Stadium to face the 10-2 Chiefs? It will be another fascinating week of speculation in Baltimore.
3. The Ravens will take winning ugly every time.
Six- and 7-yard runs up the middle aren't going to lead SportsCenter. The Ravens don't care. If those plays are going to move the chains, eat up the clock, keep the other team's offense on the sideline and lead to a victory speech by coach John Harbaugh, they'll take it every time.
For the third straight week, the Ravens chewed up huge chunks of clock on yeoman-like, blue-collar drives led by the rookie duo of Jackson and running back Gus Edwards (21 carries, 82 yards) -- with a notable assist from No. 3 quarterback Robert Griffin III.
The Ravens were held to field goals on four drives, which has cost them in the past, but they mounted three straight drives in the second half of at least 10 plays. All three took at least five minutes off the clock, including the drive led by Griffin, which lasted more than eight minutes.
That has the effect not only of shortening the game but putting more pressure on the opposing offense to make a play when it does finally get the ball. Sure enough, Ryan tried to do that immediately after a 13-play drive that lasted 6:38 and gave the Ravens a 19-10 lead.
The Ravens blitzed, Patrick Onwausaor knocked the ball from Ryan and Tavon Young returned it for a touchdown. Game over.
The Ravens will make no apologies for winning ugly.
4. Marlon Humphrey belongs in the Pro Bowl conversation.
It's probably not fair to single one player out after such a dominant team defensive effort, but it's hard to ignore the play of Humphrey, who once again was physical and disruptive on contested catches.
Early, Humphrey broke up a third-down throw to his former Alabama teammate Ridley, and also ripped away a long pass for him down the sideline. He ran stride for stride with Jones to break up a deep ball. Three weeks ago, it was Humphrey who broke up the Bengals' final fourth-down throw and secured a Ravens victory.
Safety Eric Weddle seemed to challenge Humphrey a few weeks ago when he said Humphrey could be an elite corner but was still prone to lapses. We'll never know whether the veteran was trying to motivate the second-year player, but it seems to have worked.
Humphrey has yet to record an interception this year -- the Ravens' streak without an interception has now reached 31 quarters -- and his tackles numbers aren't going to be flashy. In fact, he had no tackles in this game and is still at 24 for the season. But matched up against Pro Bowl-caliber receivers such as Jones and Ridley, Humphrey won the battle nearly every time. That's what a lockdown defender does.
5. Nine wins
suddenly looking more playoff-worthy.
The importance of this road win can't be discounted, as the Ravens needed to win one of their final three road games for the chance to get to nine wins. That still might not be enough to make the playoffs, but now a 9-7 final record looks much more likely, as home wins against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Cleveland Browns are all that is required.
The Ravens should be underdogs in their final two road games -- at Kansas City next week and at the Los Angeles Chargers on Dec. 22 -- but now they can afford to lose both those games and still finish 9-7 by holding serve at home. The Indianapolis Colts fell to 6-6 with a loss to Jacksonville this week, and the Denver Broncos are back in the picture at 6-6, but the Ravens hold the tiebreaker over them by virtue of their 27-14 win in Week 3.
Nine wins still might not be enough to make the playoffs, and living on the edge with no margin for error isn't much fun for Ravens players, coaches or fans. But the Ravens remain in control of their playoff destiny, and for the third straight week, the rookie Jackson delivered in a must-win environment.