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NFL Reset: Team Rankings, figuring out the Ravens offense, rookie QBs

Coach John Harbaugh watches the Ravens' loss Sunday in Baltimore to the Bills. (Nick Wass/AP)

The Baltimore Ravens have resembled one of the NFL’s best teams at times in the early going of this season, with quarterback Lamar Jackson back to playing at an MVP level and the offense appearing virtually unstoppable.

But then the Ravens have had to try to close out victories at home.

And that has been, well, an issue.

The Ravens easily could be 4-0, standing alongside the Philadelphia Eagles as the NFL’s only unbeaten teams. Instead, the Eagles are alone. And the Ravens are 2-2 and searching for some answers.

They squandered a 20-3 lead Sunday in Baltimore to the Buffalo Bills, going scoreless in the second half in a 23-20 defeat. That unraveling came two weeks after the Ravens couldn’t hold advantages of 28-7 in the third quarter and 35-14 with less than 13 minutes to play in a 42-38 loss to the Miami Dolphins at M&T Bank Stadium.

“It’s the NFL,” Bills safety Jordan Poyer said Sunday. “Things happen quickly. … Probably a lot of people counted us out early on in the game, down 17 against a really good football team. We were able to come back and keep our heads straight, don’t blink, and we found a way to win.”

The Bills appeared to figure out the Ravens’ offense as the game progressed.

“We were more disciplined, more assignment-sound,” Coach Sean McDermott said. “There’s probably no magic to it. … Guys executed, and we just settled in probably a little bit more. It’s funny, you go back to the playoff game [at the conclusion of the 2020 season], and that first drive of the game that they had, they went right down the field on us. And it felt the same way this game started. It’s a unique offense. So it takes some time just to settle in a little bit and just do your one-eleventh [by each player] and execute.”

Poyer certainly did his one-eleventh, providing the game-turning defensive play amid his two-interception performance.

“We started to see how the game was being played throughout the game,” Poyer said. “Some of the tendencies that we had maybe [studied] throughout the week, they were a little bit different. So we kind of understood just throughout the game that if they were in certain formations, if they were in certain personnel groups, this is what they were doing. Early on in the game, we were still trying to figure it out. But as we got through the game and you started to see plays repeat [themselves], we were able to kind of settle down ... and make the plays when we had to.”

The Bills are learning to live with being the Super Bowl favorite

Poyer’s second interception came on a fourth-and-goal attempt by the Ravens from the Buffalo 2-yard line with a little more than four minutes remaining as Coach John Harbaugh bypassed a go-ahead field goal. According to ESPN, the Ravens had won 61 straight games under Harbaugh in which they led by 17 or more points — until these two losses.

If opponents are adjusting during games to what the Ravens are doing on offense, the Ravens had better start figuring out how to adjust, too. They face their first AFC North opponent of the season Sunday night when they host the Cincinnati Bengals. They cannot afford too many more come-from-ahead defeats as they attempt to return to the playoffs following a disappointing finish to last season.

“We’ve been in this situation before. … I feel like we’re going to hit our peak at the right time,” Jackson said Sunday.

Top five teams

1. Eagles
It’s not always easy to beat a coach who has a statue at your stadium. That’s what the Eagles did in Doug Pederson’s return to Philly.
2. Bills
Being able to beat a good team in a tight game on the road is what championships are made of; the Bills showed that capability in Baltimore.
3. Chiefs
Patrick Mahomes is doing just fine without Tyreek Hill.
4. Packers
It wasn’t particularly impressive, needing all of overtime to beat the Patriots and rookie QB Bailey Zappe. But it was better than losing to the Patriots and Bailey Zappe.
5. Vikings
No, there’s not all that much long-term trust that Kirk Cousins and the Vikings can maintain this lofty status. But for now, they’ve earned this spot.

Kenny Pickett time, officially

There was no turning back for the Pittsburgh Steelers and their coach, Mike Tomlin, after Tomlin benched Mitchell Trubisky at halftime of Sunday’s loss at home to the New York Jets and went to rookie quarterback Kenny Pickett. Tomlin made the change official Tuesday, naming Pickett the starter for this weekend’s game at Buffalo.

“I thought he provided a spark for us,” Tomlin said at a news conference. “I thought we moved it more fluidly. I thought we put some points on the board. Obviously it wasn’t a perfect half of play. We turned the ball over some. You can’t do that. And he’s a young guy. He’s going to grow throughout this process. But make no mistake about it: We’re not grading him on a curve. He’s not grading himself on a curve. There’s an expectation of quality play and playing to win.”

It always was a matter of when — not if — the move would come. Pickett was the only quarterback selected in the opening round of this year’s draft. Tomlin went with Trubisky, whom the Steelers signed as a free agent in March, as the starter entering the season, even after Pickett excelled during the preseason. But the Steelers have struggled to a 1-3 record. So the Trubisky era, such as it was, lasted only four games following the retirement of Ben Roethlisberger.

Pickett had two rushing touchdowns in the second half against the Jets but threw three interceptions. He faces a considerable task in Buffalo, with the Bills tied for first in the NFL in total defense. As Tomlin tries to avoid his first losing season in Pittsburgh, he will have to live with the ups and downs of playing a rookie quarterback.

“When we make decisions, man, we don’t anticipate blowing in the wind,” Tomlin said. “That’s not how we are, while at the same time we understand that what transpires after that decision-making often determines how we move forward. We’re optimistic and thoughtful in our thought process. We believe in Kenny. We’re getting ready to play this week. And we’re singularly focused on preparing for and ultimately playing a good game and winning up there in Buffalo and really don’t have a lot of thoughts beyond that.”

Bottom five teams

28. Panthers
Sam Darnold isn’t ready to return. The fact that this is newsworthy demonstrates how dire it is for the Panthers.
29. Saints
Drew Brees and Sean Payton aren’t walking through that door.
30. Lions
Anytime you want to be hopeful about the Lions, just remember: THEY’RE THE LIONS.
31. Commanders
Three NFC East teams are thriving. The fourth? Not so much.
32. Texans
They’re the league’s only winless team, but at least 0-17 is out of play.

Could Bailey Zappe start for the Patriots?

There were no rookie starting quarterbacks leaguewide when the season began.

This week, there could be two.

In addition to Pickett, Zappe could be in line to make his first NFL start for the Patriots when they host the Detroit Lions on Sunday in Foxborough, Mass.

Zappe, a fourth-round pick from Western Kentucky, was pressed into service Sunday at Green Bay. Patriots starter Mac Jones was sidelined because of a high-ankle sprain. Backup Brian Hoyer left the game because of a head injury. Zappe threw a touchdown pass in a 10-for-15, 99-yard showing as the Patriots took the Packers to overtime before losing on a field goal as time expired in the 10-minute extra session.

Jones made it back on the practice field Friday. It remains unclear whether he could be a candidate to play this weekend. But the Patriots seemed to feel confident about what they saw from Zappe. They are signing Garrett Gilbert to their practice squad as a potential backup this week.

The Patriots perhaps will need to take an aggressive approach on offense Sunday, even if it’s with a quarterback making his first NFL start. The Lions are ranked first in the league in total offense and last in total defense. They’re averaging 35 points per game and surrendering 35.3 points per game. They’re coming off a 48-45 defeat Sunday to the Seattle Seahawks. There should be many points scored in this game as the Lions endeavor to do all they can to single-handedly reverse the leaguewide dip in scoring in the season’s early weeks.