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With Patriots loss, Ravens jump into top spot in AFC

With Patriots loss, Ravens jump into top spot in AFC

BALTIMORE — The Ravens have had one of the NFL’s toughest schedules this season. Now, they're tied for the NFL’s best record. 

With a last-second win over the 49ers on Sunday, the Ravens moved to 10-2 on the season. And paired with a Patriots loss to the Texans, the Ravens are now the top seed in the AFC due to a head-to-head tiebreaker.

The 10-2 mark is an impressive record, but even more impressive considering the teams the Ravens have beaten to get to this point. 

After Sunday’s games, the win percentage of the last six Ravens opponents is .633. If the 1-11 Bengals are eliminated, five of the last six games featured wins over teams with a combined .745 win percentage.

“We’re just a strong team,” Lamar Jackson said. “Ever since I was growing up, that’s what the Ravens have been — a team (that’s) hard to beat. A lot of people wanted to beat the Ravens. I’m glad it’s back the same way, but we’ve just got to keep it going because it’s ‘Any Given Sunday,’ so we’ve just got to play.” 

The two top teams in the AFC and NFC, entering Sunday, the Patriots and 49ers, both played the Ravens. They both lost. 

Of the Ravens 12 games they’ve played this season, five wins have come against the other 11 teams in playoff spots, as of Sunday night. The only loss came to the Chiefs on the road, who are 8-4.

“I was just talking to some of the guys, and I feel like this is the best team I’ve ever been on,” Mark Ingram said. “2011 Saints was a great team. The last couple of years were great teams, but there’s just something special about this group of guys. We believe in each other. We fight hard for each other. And no matter how ugly or pretty it is, we’re going to keep fighting.”

Baltimore will get another chance at knocking off a playoff team when it heads to Buffalo next week to face the 9-3 Bills. 

And should the Rams jump to a playoff spot, the number of playoff teams beaten would jump to six. 

“Like I keep telling people, we play Ravens football, we have each other's backs, and we’re not scared of anybody,” Willie Snead IV said. “Whoever steps up to the plate, we’re going to go at them like we have every game.” 

Now winners of eight-straight games, the Ravens have a stranglehold on the AFC North and lead the division by three games over the Steelers with just four to play — and a season finale left to play against the Steelers. 

The eight straight wins is also a franchise record, one that seemed incredibly unlikely after the Browns left M&T Bank Stadium in September after hanging 40 points on the Ravens. 

“We have never been 10-2 since I have been here,” Chris Wormley said. “Usually at this point in the season, we are clawing our way to get a playoff game. Trying to win the division or to get that wild card spot. Now we are in the position that we just keep doing what we are doing, we can play for that first round bye and home field advantage throughout the playoffs.”

With just four games to play, and a first-round bye and home-field advantage now within reach, it’s well within reason to begin thinking about January football in Baltimore. 

And if the recent stretch is any indication, February football isn’t out of the question.

“Of course that’s our goal,” Ingram said. “That’s our aspiration. But we’re going to enjoy this for tonight, come back tomorrow and start preparing for the Bills. You all can talk about the Super Bowl all you want, and of course, that’s what we want, but we’re going to take it one day at a time around here.”

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If Steelers fans are allowed into Heinz Field this season, they'll have to wear a mask

If Steelers fans are allowed into Heinz Field this season, they'll have to wear a mask

If fans are permitted to attend Pittsburgh Steelers home games this fall, there's one item they can't forget: a mask.

Steelers' director of communication, Burt Lauten, explained the decision to require fans to wear a mask in a statement on Tuesday.

"Our goal is to still have fans at Heinz Field this year with the understanding that social distancing, as well as all fans being required to wear masks, will play a role in the capacity to ensure a safe atmosphere," Lauten said, via ESPN. "We will continue to work with the NFL and public health officials to finalize plans for fans to attend our home games."

Pittsburgh was one of the first franchises to alter its ticketing plans this season, as they decided in May to trim half of their individual game ticket sales due to the coronavirus pandemic. 

The news comes just hours after their AFC North rival, the Baltimore Ravens, announced that M&T Bank Stadium will be capped at less than 14,000 fans this fall, should fans be allowed to attend games.

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In June, The Athletic reported that the NFL will not place a limit on capacity at games, allowing each individual team to make the decision themselves.

"Attendance will be a state-by-state, county-by-county thing," an anonymous NFL source told The Athletic. "It will not be a one size fits all."

Additionally, the NFL has said that the first 6-8 rows of lower bowl sections, including field-level suites, will be blocked off this fall to help slow the spread of the virus. Those sections will be covered with tarps, which teams can use to sell advertising, similarly to what the Premier League in England has done.

With training camp still a few weeks away, there are a lot of virus-related questions the NFL must answer beforehand.

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Stephen A. Smith and ESPN poll leave Lamar Jackson out of top four quarterbacks

Stephen A. Smith and ESPN poll leave Lamar Jackson out of top four quarterbacks

Despite his 2019 MVP season, many NFL experts still aren’t convinced that Lamar Jackson is the league’s best.

In a debate with Domonique Foxworth on ESPN’s First Take on Monday, Stephen A. Smith shared his top-five quarterbacks in the NFL, slotting the reigning MVP fifth overall. 

Two days later, ESPN released a poll conducted with 50 NFL personnel to rank the top 10 quarterbacks in the league this season. Jackson was ranked sixth behind Patrick Mahomes, Russell Wilson, Aaron Rodgers, Deshaun Watson and Drew Brees.

But after the record-breaking season the Ravens quarterback had –– a performance that earned him the league’s top individual honor –– how can so many still doubt his ability to succeed?

Smith cited two faults of Jackson’s game to justify his claim –– passing inability and playoff performance.

“There was a guy that ran the football very, very effectively, matter of fact as a quarterback led the team to have one if not the top-rated run attacks in football,” Smith said. “That would happen to be Tim Tebow when he was with the Denver Broncos. But what did I repeatedly say about my friend? He couldn’t throw the football at the NFL level. I never believed it, and that was a problem.”

Smith referenced Tebow’s rise and fall in the NFL and credited his inability to find longevity as a starting quarterback to his inconsistent and inaccurate arm –– something Jackson similarly struggles with.

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The Ravens led the league in rushing offense and ranked second in total offense but earned just the 27th spot in passing offense. Jackson ranked eighth in completion percentage among all quarterbacks but first in rushing yards and sixth in rushing yards among all players. For Smith, this discrepancy does not warrant Jackson a top-two quarterback spot.

“No one can run the football like Lamar Jackson. Nobody,” Smith said. “Not at the quarterback position in the NFL. We know that. That’s just on another level. But in terms of throwing the football, even though he’s had his moments, and he definitely improved in accuracy in terms of completing 66 percent of his passes last season, I don’t think he can throw the football like Deshaun Watson.”

Smith referenced Watson and a number of other quarterbacks higher on his list like Patrick Mahomes, Russell Wilson and Drew Brees and praised their accuracy, leadership and veteran play, which earned them the spots ahead of Jackson.

In addition to the issues with Jackson’s arm, Smith also believed his playoff performance holds him back. Jackson posted an 0-2 record in his first two playoff performances, falling to the Chargers in 2018 and the Titans in 2019. 

Overall in his career, he completes 63.7% of his passes and posts a 4.66 TD/INT ratio. On the other hand, during the playoffs, he completed 51.1% of his passes and posted a 1.0 TD/INT ratio.

As Smith noted while he did improve from a 48% completion rate to 52% in the playoffs this year, he will not reach an elite level of play until he can perform in the postseason.

While Smith was certainly skeptical of Jackson’s ability to succeed in the league long-term, he still understood the hype.

“I’ll tell you this though, he is top-two box office. He might even be number one.”

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