So the Ravens are back in the playoffs for the first time since 2014, and the only thing you know about Sunday’s wild-card-round game is that they’re playing the San Diego Chargers.
If you’re jumping aboard the Ravens’ bandwagon now, there’s a lot to know and a lot worth reading to become fully immersed. But if you just want to know enough to get by at a game watch or a pregame tailgate, there are a few things you ought to know.
1. Lamar Jackson is the quarterback …
The Ravens rookie took over in mid-November and has won all but one of his seven starts — the lone defeat came in overtime, on the road, against maybe the NFL’s top team — to lift the Ravens to their first playoff appearance in four years. He’ll be the youngest starting quarterback ever to start in a postseason game.
With his elite speed and agility, the Ravens have bucked convention by becoming a run-first team, relying more on long, sustained drives downfield than on quick-strike passes to receivers. Jackson is still developing as a passer and has been prone to fumbles, but his unique athletic gifts have made preparing for the Ravens’ one-of-a-kind offense a tough ask for opposing defenses.
Alex Collins, a breakout star last season, is no longer the Ravens’ top running back. Undrafted rookie sensation Gus Edwards, aka “Gus the Bus,” has escaped practice squad anonymity to become a bruising between-the-tackles rusher, while Kenneth Dixon, who missed most of the season, is another late-emerging, hard-charging talent.
2. … because Joe Flacco isn’t anymore.
After the Ravens took Jackson in the first round of the NFL draft, Flacco entered preseason with more pressure than he’d ever faced in his first 10 seasons in Baltimore. Still, he began the regular season with the starting job easily secured, and his first month of play was promising: seven touchdown passes, two interceptions, 313 passing yards per game and a 3-1 record.
But the Ravens won just once in the next five weeks, and in the final game before their bye in Week 10, Flacco suffered a right hip injury Nov. 4 against the Pittsburgh Steelers. He played through the injury in the loss, even saying afterward that he hadn’t been affected by a pair of early hits.
That changed quickly. Flacco, who had missed just six games over his 11-year career, was sidelined the next three games by the hip; he risked a potentially career-ending injury if he returned too soon. After being medically cleared to play, Harbaugh announced that the team would stick with Jackson. Flacco hasn’t played a snap since in what could be his final days with the franchise.
3. The defense is elite.
Under first-year coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale — yes, the nickname has a namesake — the Ravens finished No. 1 in the NFL in yards allowed per game and No. 2 in points allowed per game. In other words, it’s a classic Ravens defense.
With a relatively short injury list, there are few weaknesses. The defensive line is led by run-stuffers Michael Pierce and Brandon Williams. Perennial Pro Bowl inside linebacker C.J. Mosley had the Ravens’ playoffs-sealing interception against the Cleveland Browns. Terrell Suggs, Matthew Judon and Za’Darius Smith headline a deep group of outside linebackers. Cornerbacks Jimmy Smith and Brandon Carr and safeties Tony Jefferson and Eric Weddle are established, wily veterans, and cornerback Marlon Humphrey is a rising star.
The only thing the Ravens didn’t do for much of the season? Force turnovers. They had just 12 interceptions and five fumbles, tied for 22nd in the NFL, in the regular season. But they’ve gotten better lately, with six takeaways in the past two weeks.
4. Justin Tucker is as reliable as ever.
The kicker was as scrutinized as he's ever been after missing a decisive extra-point attempt in the final minute of a one-point loss to the New Orleans Saints. But that was the low point in a season otherwise defined by its usual standards of excellence.
He is 35-for-39 on field-goal attempts this season, with his only four misses coming from 40-plus yards. He has missed just the one extra point. He missed out on Pro Bowl honors for the second straight season but on Friday was named first-team All-Pro for the third time in his career.
5. John Harbaugh’s still the coach, but for how long is uncertain.
Even with the Ravens facing the prospect of their fourth straight postseason absence, the team announced the day before its penultimate regular-season game that Harbaugh would be returning as coach in 2019. But the Ravens also acknowledged that they hadn’t yet reached an extension on his contract, which expires after the 2019 season.
Harbaugh, who took over in 2008 and is regarded as one of the NFL’s better coaches, has been reluctant to talk about the announcement, preferring to talk about his team. But he has been the subject of speculation over possible trades, which are highly unusual but not unprecedented. The looming transition from longtime general manager Ozzie Newsome to Eric DeCosta is another wrinkle.
The more the Ravens win, the higher his value would likely rise — both in contract negotiations with the team that currently employs him and to the many teams with head coaching vacancies that would like to employ him.