Ray Lewis hasn’t played in a month, though the Baltimore Ravens All-Pro linebacker set a fairly attainable goal in a pre-game pep talk, several hours before a 55-20 victory over the Oakland Raiders became final.
"Let's dominate these boys!" Lewis told his teammates Sunday in his first game back at M&T Bank since triceps surgery.
No problem. The Ravens — even without Lewis, who is on injured reserve — were, after all, facing the struggling Oakland Raiders. Baltimore reeled off the most points in team history, scored two special teams touchdowns (a fake field goal and a 105-yard kickoff return by Jacoby Jones) and rested most of their vital starters a good portion of the second half.
The task immediately becomes more difficult next Sunday night as the Ravens travel to play the Steelers, the first of two matchups over the next three weeks between the rivals that could decide the AFC North.
“This game stands on its own,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said of next week’s contest. “We’ve known it's on the schedule. They’ve known it’s on the schedule. We are excited to go play this game. I we feel like we are in a position where want to be to play them.”
Ravens players and coaches appeared to have been in a truncated “savor this win” mode — a state they could have entered by halftime — after their 15th consecutive regular season home victory and 16th overall.
“We focused all week on the Raiders, but in the back of our minds, we knew the Steelers were coming,” Ravens offensive lineman Michael Oher said. “They have been having a lot of success of late.”
It’s debatable how much Sunday’s lopsided victory over a Raiders team that is 3-6 and allowed 97 points over the last two weeks readies the Ravens (7-2) for the Steelers. Pittsburgh (5-3) still has to play the Kansas City Chiefs Monday night.
But so far the Ravens have weathered the loss of Lewis — albeit against sub-.500 teams. The Ravens enter next week’s game 2-1 without Lewis. In those wins against Cleveland and Oakland, Baltimore has forced five turnovers.
Those takeaways obscure the fact that safety Ed Reed (right shoulder) isn’t 100 percent — made clear by a missed tackle on a 55-yard touchdown by Raiders receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey — and the secondary remains green after cornerback Lardarius Webb (knee) was lost for the year. Starting defensive lineman Haloti Ngata (knee and shoulder) dressed, but didn’t play on Sunday.
“It’s a confidence booster on all ends,” Ravens running back Ray Rice said, who had 13 carries for 35 yards with a touchdown. “When you have a defense without Haloti and Ray Lewis, you can see those guys really stepped it up.”
Want to see a defense that lacks on-the-field leadership? You just had to wait for a change of possession, which followed a Ravens field goal or touchdown in all but three drives.
Defensive tackle Richard Seymour, a seven-time Pro Bowler and three-time first-team All-Pro, was inactive for the game with hamstring and knee injuries. It’s unclear how much Seymour could have made a difference since it was the secondary — not the defensive line — that was gashed, but it certainly didn’t help things.
In a move to shake up that secondary, Oakland released Pat Lee — a cornerback who had started the previous seven games — to make way for cornerback Ron Bartell. Not that the personnel moves mattered as Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco was 21 for 33 with 341 yards, three touchdowns and one interception.
A prime example of the Raiders’ ineptitude on pass defense came as defensive backs Tyvon Branch and Michael Huff jarred at each other after blown coverage on Flacco’s final (and Torrey Smith’s second) touchdown on a 20-yard strike in the third quarter.
“We obviously have to look at the whole thing,” said first-year Raiders coach Dennis Allen, whose team matched a franchise high for points allowed in a game. “The outcome like that is unacceptable.”
Meanwhile for the Ravens, this game was like one big participation trophy.
“Momentum helps,” Harbaugh said. “Confidence is a good thing. You could talk about confidence, but confidence is really built by playing well, right? You prove to yourself that you can do well and become more confident, so that’s got to be a plus for us.”