The most surprising aspect of the Ravens' rise to the top of the AFC playoff race? They've done it despite their offense spinning its wheels like it seldom has with Lamar Jackson at quarterback.
The numbers are pretty startling.
Heading into their Week 9 game against the Dolphins, the Ravens were averaging 27.6 points, 427 total offensive yards, 266 passing yards and 3.1 touchdowns per game. They ranked among the league leaders in those categories.
But during the three-game span that began with the loss in Miami, they've averaged 14 points, 302 total yards, 180 passing yards and one touchdown per game.
Those are significant declines.
The good news for the Ravens is they've still won two of the three games, giving them an 8-3 record, first place in their division and the top seed if the AFC playoffs began now.
They're gritty, resourceful and no fun to play, but it won't be easy for them to sustain such success if their offensive output continues to be diminished.
What's happening isn't a secret. The Ravens went to Miami on a roll, but the Dolphins knocked Jackson and the offense off stride with heavy blitzing. Ravens Offensive Coordinator Greg Roman called it a "straight to DVD" performance, and now every team is employing Miami's aggressive approach.
A week later, the Bears blitzed far more than usual and had a win over the Ravens in hand until backup quarterback Tyler Huntley directed a late touchdown drive. It helped the Bears that Jackson missed the game with an illness, but still, their aggressive strategy made the game close.
The Browns had to face Jackson Sunday night, and although they lost, they did a relatively good job of limiting the Ravens' offense. They didn't need to blitz as much because their star pass rushers, Myles Garrett and Jadeveon Clowney, wreak so much havoc on their own, but the resulting pressure was in line with what the Ravens faced in Miami and Chicago, and Jackson threw four interceptions in a game for the first time as a pro.
Every week is a new realm, with changing matchups producing different strategies, but I think we're seeing, in a general sense, how opposing defenses are going to attack Jackson and his offense for the rest of the 2021 season.
Until Jackson and the offense start producing more points and yards against ultra-heavy pressure, opponents are going to keep bringing it. The reeling Steelers surely will Sunday at Heinz Field.
It's all part of the great chess match that unfolds during an NFL season as coaches and players constantly adjust to evolving scenarios. I'm not suggesting the league has "figured out" Jackson, a storyline so tired I hesitate even to mention it.
What's happening starts with the fact that the Ravens' ground game, the non-Lamar portion, has become less threatening than anticipated. Injuries to projected cornerstones such as tackle Ronnie Stanley and backs J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards have had an impact, as has the fact that the O-line ranks in the bottom half of the league (No. 19) in run blocking, according to Pro Football Focus.
Although the passing game is improved, opposing defenses can tee off more because they aren't so worried about the Baltimore running game gashing them. Also, to this point, opponents aren't paying a price for being so aggressive; Jackson is still completing a lot of passes, but his average yards per attempt and completion drop significantly when he is under pressure.
Bottom line, the Ravens are having to work a lot harder to move the ball and score, and you know their upcoming opponents are watching carefully and taking notes.
The good news, for the Ravens, is they still have six regular-season games to play, basically an eternity. The chess match is anything but over, and with Jackson at quarterback, the Ravens have a range of possible solutions. They've had a big edge in time of possession in the past two games, which suggests they're starting to figure things out.
Meanwhile, they have the best record in the AFC, so it's hardly the worst situation. But it's one to watch, for sure.