Good teams win.
Great teams cover.
Elite teams win (and cover) even when they play poorly.
Any NFL team can win when they bring their "A" game, but nobody can be at their best every single week. The NFL is a league defined by its inconsistency and parity. The schedule is too grinding, and the sport is too hard to master week in and week out.
Unless you're the Ravens, that is.
The @Ravens ...
✔️Have earned a playoff berth in 8 of John Harbaugh's 12 seasons
✔️Are 11-2 for the first time in franchise history
✔️Are riding a 9-game winning streak -- the NFL's longest this season
✔️Have beaten 7 teams w/ a winning record during the 9-game win streak
— Patrick Gleason (@PMGleason) December 8, 2019
Their franchise-best 11-2 start, built around their current nine-game winning streak, has mostly seen the Ravens play near their peak level against all opponents. Lamar Jackson has looked like the MVP almost every week, and even when facing quality competition the Ravens are making winning look easy.
That hasn't been the case the last two weeks, though. The Ravens hosted the San Francisco 49ers in Week 13 and traveled to Buffalo in Week 14. Both teams were quality opponents -- combining for a 19-4 record -- with strong defenses ranked in the top six in the NFL.
The Ravens struggled in both games, to varying degrees. They fought the rain Baltimore and the wind in Buffalo, and Lamar Jackson suffered with two of his worst passing days of the season.
The running game wasn't utterly dominant in either game, and the defense gave up multiple chunk plays. Punter Sam Koch was on the field Sunday seven times, more than the previous five weeks combined.
And yet, the Ravens won both games. The 49ers game came down to a last-second field goal, while the Bills game felt more in control throughout. Tight end Hayden Hurst considers these types of games hugely important.
"Coming into an environment like this, you know we have a young team," Hurst said after the game. "I think right now we're getting battle-tested. I think it's good for us."
The Ravens' ceiling is high enough that almost no other contender can match them when they play their best. What should scare the rest of the NFL is seeing them beat two quality opponents, in tough conditions, while playing poorly.
The Ravens defense allowed the Bills to march down the field late in the fourth quarter with a chance to tie the game. Helping Josh Allen and his offense was sloppy play from the Ravens; a whopping 56 yards of the Bills' drive came on three penalties against the Ravens.
Lamar Jackson completed 30-of-48 passes for just 250 yards in the last two weeks combined, and Mark Ingram has 30 rushes for 109 yards in the same span.
The defense was able to get a stop when it mattered, something they haven't had to do much of in the last nine weeks.
"We want to be the heroes sometimes," linebacker Matthew Judon told reporters postgame. "It's usually Lamar and the offensive line, the heroes of the game...but today we were called upon."
It's easy to throw out terms like "winning ugly" and "bend but don't break," but they apply to the Ravens of the last two weeks. Just like the prototypical defense-first Ravens teams of yesteryear, but unlike the high-octane Ravens of the last several weeks, the Ravens we saw today are a team that doesn't mind winning ugly or playing in close games.
It says a lot about the strength of this roster that they can blow out teams like the Rams and Texans in dominating fashion. It may say even more that they can play poorly and still beat teams like the 49ers and Bills.
If the Ravens are going to make the Super Bowl this year, they'll likely have to do it by playing closer to their A game in the postseason. But it's comforting to see them figure out how to win in other ways too.
They could afford to lose Sunday, but eventually they will once again play in a game they can't afford to drop. When the time comes, they'll enter with confidence that their Plan B can be just as effective as Plan A.
Ravens have shown as much in close wins as in their blowouts originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington