Baltimore Ravens head coach John Harbaugh talks about their win over the Cleveland Browns, capturing the first seed bye in the NFL playoffs.
The Ravens don’t have to win Sunday’s game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, but it would certainly be a nice way to close out the regular season and ride an unprecedented tidal wave of success into the playoffs.
That’s certainly not out of the question, even with the Steelers still needing to win to keep their postseason hopes alive and most of the Ravens’ top stars watching from the sideline.
The game is no longer critical for a team that has won 11 games in a row and just took care of business at a rare moment in time when a game against the Cleveland Browns was more impactful than an ensuing game against the Ravens’ most hated — and respected — rival.
But it’s still meaningful, even if fans won’t have to spend any of their holidays sweating out a game that might seriously affect the Raven’s Super Bowl prospects.
John Harbaugh made that clear during his Monday press conference, and it wasn’t just a hollow nod to the integrity of a game with playoff implications for the opposing team.
“We’ll be excited to play,” Harbaugh said. “It’s a rivalry game. It’s the Steelers. They have everything to play for and we recognize that and will be looking to put our best foot forward, play our best football game with the guys that will be playing, which will be — for the most part — most of our football team with a few exceptions.”
Whether that translates into a victory is an open question. The oddsmakers originally posted the Ravens as a 3½-point favorite, but the line shifted decidedly after Harbaugh announced that Lamar Jackson and several other key players will not play Sunday.
The Steelers now are listed as a two-point favorite to win a game that, combined with a loss by the Tennessee Titans, could vault them into the playoffs after a season in which they lost future Hall of Fame quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in Week 2 and have overcome several other significant injuries.
“It will be an opportunity for some guys to play who’ve been inactive, so that’s a big plus for us," Harbaugh said. "Give some guys some experience and we’ll just roll with it, but our intention will be ... our plan will be ... all hands on deck to win the game.”
Jackson, injured running back Mark Ingram II, veteran guard Marshall Yanda, safety Earl Thomas III and run-stopper Brandon Williams have been ruled out, which might not be great for TV ratings, but the Ravens earned the right to protect those guys by achieving every one of their regular-season goals with a week remaining on the schedule.
There still are good reasons to watch. Veteran quarterback Robert Griffin III will likely play most of the game and get an opportunity to show the rest of the league that he can still be more than just an experienced backup.
Harbaugh also indicated that No. 3 quarterback Trace McSorley might get a chance to make his NFL regular-season debut. Hopefully, neither will be required to fill in for Jackson in a critical situation during the playoff run, but it will be a chance to see how effective this Ravens offense can still be without him.
There was no choice in the matter with Ingram, who suffered a calf strain in Sunday’s game, but Gus Edwards has had a solid year and Ingram’s absence creates an opportunity for promising rookie Justice Hill to get significant reps.
The Steelers have been very resilient this season, but they’re still wounded. Second-string quarterback Mason Rudolph reportedly will not play because of a shoulder injury, putting their most pivotal game of the season in the hands of Devlin Hodges and Paxton Lynch, and top running back James Conner is very questionable after leaving Sunday’s game with a thigh injury. Top receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster will be active, but he caught just two passes for 22 yards on Sunday after being out the previous four games with a knee injury.
No matter what happens, the Ravens will be off the following week before making their playoff debut in the divisional round. That means that Jackson will go three weeks between games, but no one seems particularly concerned that the long layoff will affect his mojo.