In the 28-year history of the Ravens, perhaps no team has entered the playoffs with as many questions as this one.
I’ve talked with NFL personnel, former players and media members who have been around the team since they moved here in 1996, and no one can remember a team that has so many areas of concern.
Yet here they are, about to begin their playoff quest in three weeks after beating the Atlanta Falcons, 17-9, on Saturday and watching the Cincinnati Bengals hold on to defeat the New England Patriots, 22-18.
Imagine that, after all these years: The Ravens (10-5) were rooting for the Bengals so they could secure a playoff spot.
That’s just one of many crazy things about this Ravens season. First of all, the team has to be saluted for making it into the postseason after losing star quarterback Lamar Jackson for several weeks with a sprained knee. For all of those who said the Ravens couldn’t win without Jackson, they are now 3-1 since he went down in Week 13 against the Denver Broncos.
The results haven’t been pretty, but the Ravens have won ugly for most of the season.
Even against Atlanta, the Ravens couldn’t go into a victory formation until there was 2:03 left in the game after the Falcons piled up 327 total yards and held the ball for nearly 33 minutes.
If the Falcons had a quarterback who could throw downfield and a coach who wasn’t as goofy as Arthur Smith, they might have beaten the Ravens. But Baltimore prevailed even with quarterback Tyler Huntley completing only nine of 17 passes for 115 yards.
Huntley played like a backup, and that prompts the first question: When will Jackson return?
It’s still a mystery. There has been some speculation that Jackson is unhappy with his contract negotiations and isn’t eager to play, but local medical experts agree that his PCL sprain usually takes four to six weeks to heal provided he follows a proper rehabilitation program with rest and nutrition.
Oh, so it’s anybody’s guess then.
“I haven’t thought about that. Players play when they’re healthy and ready to go. That’s really all we do,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said about Jackson’s potential return. “When the player and the docs come back and say, ‘Hey, it’s time,’ then [as] coaches, we build him into the game plan. That’s really how [it works]. To think about it beyond that is just kind of a waste of energy and time.
“All the players — including Lamar — Lamar is working very hard to get back. The trainers are working very hard to get him back. I’m optimistic in so many ways, but focused on our team and the next game plan with who we have, really.”
No matter when — or if — Jackson returns, it will be interesting to see whether the Ravens open up the downfield passing game. They went conservative after Jackson’s two big turnovers cost them in a 24-20 loss to the New York Giants on Oct. 16.
A week later Jackson threw only 16 passes in a 23-20 win over Cleveland, and both he and tight end Mark Andrews were clearly irritated by the lack of opportunities. The Ravens have stuck with a conservative approach, but is that good enough to beat such high-powered offenses as Kansas City’s, Cincinnati’s and Buffalo’s?
Then there is the Greg Roman factor. The offensive coordinator simply lacks a feel for the game. He doesn’t know when it’s time to keep mashing teams with the run or hit the panic button by going to a passing game, which in his case isn’t sophisticated.
How many times can the Ravens send out three receivers in the red zone when opposing defenses are dropping seven into coverage? Where are the rubs and clearing routes?
The Ravens have one of the best running back tandems in the NFL, but starter J.K. Dobbins is still struggling after returning from arthroscopic knee surgery. His backup, Gus Edwards, had perhaps his best game in recent weeks on Saturday, rushing for 99 yards on 11 carries.
“Yes, I feel like I’m definitely approaching where I want to be,” Edwards said. “It’s been hard. It’s been a long ride, but I’ve got my running mate with me, J.K., and we’re just pushing each other out there and building off of each other.”
The Ravens have several concerns on defense as well. Ever notice that veterans like defensive end Calais Campbell, cornerback Marcus Peters, and outside linebackers Justin Houston and Jason Pierre-Paul play well at times, but can’t sustain it for long periods without getting injured?
Opposing teams have started to focus on weak side linebacker Patrick Queen and rookie safety Kyle Hamilton in coverage, and the Ravens still lack speed on the outside at cornerback.
The one area the team could count on was Mr. Automatic, kicker Justin Tucker, but his 55-yard field goal attempt was blocked Saturday, his second blocked kick in two weeks.
Of course, there are clock management issues and Harbaugh’s overaggressiveness on fourth down, but that would be piling on.
The good news is that the Ravens made the playoffs and that’s all that counts. If you get in, then you have a chance of moving on to The Big Dance. The Ravens have a shot despite all the questions about them.
Merry Christmas, Baltimore.