OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson wore a black T-shirt to his media session last week with one word in white lettering on the front of it: Finish.
Ravens coach John Harbaugh handed it out to his team a few weeks ago to reinforce the most important message at the moment.
“Finish games, finish plays, finish practices, finish weightlifting sessions, finish meetings, finish conversations, finish press conferences,” Harbaugh said. “It’s really just everything. It’s every little thing that leads to the bigger picture, like you say, whether it’s finishing the season or finishing out all the way.”
When it comes to finishing out the regular season, no NFL team has been more successful in doing so than the Ravens. Baltimore is an NFL-best 13-2 in December over the past three years, outscoring teams by an average of 11.6 points.
The Ravens (10-5) have put themselves in position for a playoff berth by how they turned around their season this month. Baltimore can clinch a wild-card spot Sunday if it wins in Cincinnati (1 p.m. ET, CBS).
Jackson, in particular, has heated up when the cold weather arrives. He has won his last 11 starts in December, producing a league-high Total QBR (78.5) and scoring the most total touchdowns (31).
What’s the Ravens’ secret for winning in December?
“There’s a lot that goes into it, probably,” Harbaugh said. “It’s not that we’re not aware of that, [and] it’s not that it’s something that we don’t feel good about, because we do feel good about it. But it is the most important time of the year to win games, and there have been years when we weren’t able to finish it out in the end. So, we’re just focusing on that right now.”
Here are three reasons why the Ravens are the NFL’s most dominant December team:
The Ravens are built for it
Baltimore is an all-weather team because of its relentless and punishing running game. Since 2018, the Ravens have gashed teams for 3,140 yards rushing in December — 805 more than any other team.
“When you have a running quarterback and they are committing 11 guys to running the ball and the fullback is 300 pounds [Pro Bowl player Patrick Ricard], they are going to move the ball a bit,” New York Giants safety Logan Ryan said Sunday.
The Ravens set the NFL’s all-time single-season rushing record last season, but the rushing attack has been just as impressive this year. Despite losing an All-Pro left tackle (Ronnie Stanley) and one of the league’s top blocking tight ends (Nick Boyle) to season-ending injuries, Baltimore has gained more than 200 yards rushing in three of its past four games this month, including 249 yards Sunday against the Giants, who had the No. 6 run defense in the league.
In 2019, the Ravens primarily pushed teams around with their three-tight-end formations. In 2020, Baltimore has been more versatile, spreading out teams (using J.K. Dobbins’ speed on the edge), lining up two running backs in the backfield and using a sixth offensive lineman at times.
“You can’t stay the same in this league,” Harbaugh said. “As soon as you start staying the same, people start stopping you. So, we always have to keep building on it and kind of moving the shells around as best as we can.”
Head coach’s philosophy
The Ravens have been among the best teams in December since Harbaugh took over as coach. Baltimore is 36-21 (.632) in December since 2008, trailing only the New England Patriots, Green Bay Packers and Pittsburgh Steelers.
There have been the occasional heartbreaking hiccups along the way, like getting ousted from playoff contention by the Bengals in the 2017 season finale when Andy Dalton hit Tyler Boyd for a 49-yard touchdown with 44 seconds remaining. But, for the most part, Harbaugh sets the tone for the end of the season in training camp with some of the toughest and most fast-paced practices in the league.
“We work really hard, and we work hard to — I guess you could say — last longer than most teams,” Ravens offensive tackle Orlando Brown Jr. said. “I think that’s just a testament to the amount of work that we put in throughout a season and offseason to get to this point. We understand what’s at stake here in December, normally. December football is important, and it’s something that Coach Harbaugh always stresses.”
Must-wins in December
Jackson believes the Ravens are usually at the top of their game this month because the games have mattered so much. Baltimore couldn’t slip up in December in each of the past three seasons because of playoff implications.
In 2018, Baltimore started 4-5 and didn’t clinch a playoff berth until 62 seconds remaining in the season finale, when linebacker C.J. Mosley sealed a 26-24 win over the Cleveland Browns with an interception. In 2019, the Ravens had to close out strong because they were seeking the first No. 1 seed in franchise history, which came in the second-to-last game of the season. This year, Baltimore was 6-5 before rallying in December to get them within one victory of a third straight postseason berth.
“So, each and every week is a playoff week for us,” Jackson said. “That’s the mindset we have to have, and that’s just what it is.”