Have you tuned out the NFL as the world teeters around us? Did you last watch the Ravens when they crashed out of the playoffs 12 months ago?
Well, sub-casual sports acquaintances, this briefing is for you. Here are a few quick and dirty things to know about the Ravens so you’re not lost when playoff talk breaks out on your office Zoom this week.
They’re playing the Tennessee Titans. Yes, again.
You’ll recall that the Ravens entered last year’s playoffs as the AFC’s No. 1 seed, riding a 12-game winning streak with soon-to-be Most Valuable Player Lamar Jackson bathing in national acclaim. Then it took the Titans all of 2½ quarters to knock the swagger out of them. Tennessee intercepted Jackson twice, hit on a few big plays and gave the Ravens no chance to recover in a stunning 28-12 thrashing. After the game, All-Pro cornerback Marlon Humphrey said the team’s “identity right now is get in the playoffs and choke.”
Here we are 12 months later, and the Ravens are headed for another playoff appearance with Jackson as their star. And wouldn’t you know, those same Titans stand in their way. They beat the Ravens again in November, this time rallying from a 21-10 second-half deficit. They’re loaded with offensive stars, led by 6-foot-3, 247-pound running back Derrick Henry, who’s the NFL’s version of a jet-propelled sledgehammer. They won’t be easy to outscore.
The good news if you’re rooting for the Ravens is that Tennessee’s defense leaves plenty to be desired. The Titans gave up 38 points to the lowly Houston Texans in the last game of the regular season and 40 to the Green Bay Packers the week before that. So, despite the aforementioned recent history between these teams, the Ravens are favored going into Sunday’s game.
The Ravens appeared down and out as recently as five weeks ago.
A bunch of analysts picked the Ravens to win the Super Bowl before the start of the season. Early betting odds listed them as a favorite in all 16 games. And they did win five of their first six.
But the middle of their season turned rough. They blew leads against the hated Pittsburgh Steelers and the Titans. Key players such as left tackle Ronnie Stanley and tight end Nick Boyle fell to season-ending injuries. Their offense lost its zip and Jackson played without his customary joy. Finally, a COVID-19 outbreak decimated their roster, affecting more than 20 players and postponing their rematch against the Steelers from Thanksgiving night to the following Wednesday.
After the Ravens dropped that game, they were 6-5 and two spots out of the race for seven AFC playoff berths. They knew if they lost again, there would probably be no shot at playoff redemption.
These win-or-go-home stakes seemed to suit them, because they won their last five games, rediscovered their offensive mojo and stormed their way back to the No. 5 seed in the playoffs. Are they peaking at the right time? We’re about to find out.
Lamar Jackson is back to playing like an MVP candidate.
As mentioned, the franchise quarterback lived through some rough times over the first 12 weeks of this season. He put pressure on himself to follow up his 2019 performance. Defensive coordinators dreamed up new ways to shut off his favorite parts of the field. Criticism of his throwing resurfaced after poor performances against the Steelers and Kansas City Chiefs. Then, he tested positive for COVID-19.
The virus sapped Jackson’s energy, robbed him of taste and smell and kept him out of the Steelers rematch. But he returned a happier man. Jackson said he felt like he’d been away a year and realized how much he missed football. He grinned his way through interviews and pivotal moments on the field. He scrambled and led the offense like he had on his best days in 2019.
Jackson’s resurgence reached its zenith on a Monday night in Cleveland. With the Ravens leading the Browns, he disappeared from the field, stricken with cramps that sent him to the training room for rehydration. Though social-media posters speculated he was taking a bathroom break, he did not reappear for 40 minutes. Jackson emerged at the most dramatic possible moment, with the Ravens facing a fourth down that could have been their last hope for the season. He threw a touchdown pass on that play and moments later, led another scoring drive to secure the victory.
The Ravens have romped to three wins since then, with Jackson maintaining his form. Now, he’ll confront the specter of his 0-2 playoff record, which has provided ammunition for his most determined critics.
There are new faces among these Ravens.
If the Ravens manage to flip their script against the Titans, they’ll do so with help from a stellar rookie class and a few veteran additions.
First-round pick Patrick Queen has started every game at middle linebacker, the ground once patrolled by Ray Lewis. Though he’s endured some growing pains, the confident 21-year-old from Louisiana has piled up 106 tackles, three sacks, two forced fumbles and an interception.
On the other side of the ball, second-round pick J.K. Dobbins has stepped forward as the team’s top running back. He ran for 160 yards in the regular season finale and leads the Ravens with nine rushing touchdowns. The Ravens haven’t had a runner with his blend of balance and vision since a prime Ray Rice.
As for the veterans, defensive end Calais Campbell towers over almost everyone on the field and speaks with the gravelly voice of a blues singer. He’s rounding into form for the playoffs after a calf injury and a COVID-19 positive took out a chunk of his season. His defensive line partner, Derek Wolfe, is not quite as large, but he’s been the team’s sturdiest run deterrent. On the edge, the Ravens traded for former University of Maryland star Yannick Ngakoue midway through the season, hoping to boost their sack production.
It’s still all about the run.
With Jackson as their quarterback, the Ravens continue to swim against the prevailing tide in modern football. They attempted fewer passes than any team in the league this year but scored the seventh most points because they again battered opponents on the ground.
When you watch the Ravens play, you’ll hear terms like pistol formation, “Pony” package, presnap motion and jet sweep. That’s because offensive coordinator Greg Roman calls one of the most creative running attacks ever deployed in the NFL. Jackson’s magical legs make it all possible. He’s such a threat that opponents have difficulty guessing who’s going to run or in what direction.
The Ravens also don’t mind going “medieval,” as Roman puts it, which means they’ll use a sixth offensive lineman and 311-pound fullback Patrick Ricard to blast would-be tacklers out of their running lanes.
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They relied on this mix of trickery and power to lead the NFL in rushing again, and they rolled up a franchise record 404 yards in their last game of the regular season. When they face the Titans and Henry, we’ll see strength versus strength.