If the Ravens are to win Sunday night in Cincinnati, upsetting the team with the longest winning streak in the AFC and ending their own two-game skid, it won’t be because of the dazzling 2019 NFL Most Valuable Player on their roster.
Lamar Jackson, who was the team’s leading rusher and leading passer in their last playoff win, is officially out for Baltimore’s wild-card date with the Bengals. The Ravens won’t be able to turn to the man who has engineered so much electricity over his five years with the franchise.
When Jackson’s on the field, the offense is always a threat. Without him, the Ravens become human. So it might take a superhuman effort from the defense for the Ravens to extend their season another week.
The Ravens haven’t scored more than 17 points (nor recorded more than two touchdowns) in a game since Jackson went down with a left knee injury on Dec. 4. Jackson revealed Thursday on social media that his knee “remains unstable” with what he called a Grade 2 or Grade 3 PCL sprain. The Ravens’ injury report Friday laid bare what was already apparent: Jackson is unavailable to play.
Barring an offensive explosion with the still-recovering Tyler Huntley at quarterback, the Ravens might need a low-scoring game to knock off the Bengals.
Cincinnati boasts one of the NFL’s top offenses. Their passing attack is a leading reason they’ve won eight straight games and rank fourth in the NFL in Football Outsiders’ offensive DVOA (a comprehensive stat measuring a team’s efficiency).
Baltimore held the Bengals mostly in check last week, though. Cincinnati did manage 27 points, but its scores came mostly on short fields and the final total was inflated by a defensive touchdown.
“I thought our defense was outstanding. I thought our defense flew around,” coach John Harbaugh said after the game.
Despite the loss, the Ravens actually outgained the Bengals in yards per play, 5.1 to 4.0.
“We played well,” rookie safety Kyle Hamilton said. “We attacked, we were aggressive, made some mistakes and gave up some stuff we probably shouldn’t have, but there’s always next week, right?”
In this case, there is. The Ravens will face the same foe in back-to-back weeks, looking to contain an offense that has produced at least 20 points in each game since the end of October. But the Ravens own one of the NFL’s most capable defenses. Over the second half of the season, the Ravens have ranked third in the NFL in defensive DVOA.
It might take a defensive masterpiece for the Ravens to live another week.
But Hamilton said there is not any pressure on the defense to play extra well, citing a quote his mother used to tell him: “Pressure makes diamonds.”
“We’re gonna try to go out there and make diamonds with it,” he said.
A tale of turnovers
The Ravens had more rushing yards, more passing yards, more first downs, more yards per play and fewer penalty yards than the Bengals last week. They also had fewer points.
Turnovers doomed Baltimore, as interceptions from third-string quarterback Anthony Brown twice gave the Bengals the ball on Baltimore’s half of the field in the game’s first 15 minutes, setting up short touchdown drives. A fumble by Brown in the end zone then gave the Bengals another score, as the Ravens finished with four turnovers to Cincinnati’s one.
“I thought [Brown] did pretty darn good once he got settled in,” Ravens offensive coordinator Greg Roman said, “but it’s a 60-minute game and some of those mistakes early really cost us.”
Winning the turnover margin typically gives an NFL team a 75% chance to win the game. This season, it’s been especially critical. In Ravens games, the team with a positive turnover differential has won 87% of the time (13 of 15; the Ravens and their opponent had an equal number of turnovers twice).
The Ravens’ four turnovers Sunday were the most in a game this season.
“You can’t turn the ball over like that and expect to have a chance to win the game,” Roman said. “We have to play a smarter game. How do you prevent those [turnovers]? Some of those are very easily prevented. They should have never happened.”
Seeking an offensive answer
The Ravens have averaged a mere 12.5 points per game since Jackson’s injury, among the lowest in the league.
Harbaugh said Friday he did not yet know who would start at quarterback on Sunday. Huntley is in line to start and said his injured shoulder feels as if it’s 90 to 99% healthy, but he’s still a game-time decision. If he’s unavailable, Brown would start again.
Regardless of whether Huntley or Brown plays, a win would likely require a more complete offensive effort than the Ravens have seen in recent weeks.
Right guard Kevin Zeitler said “everyone has to play better.”
“We know it’s a heck of an opponent on a heck of a streak and you have to bring our ‘A’ game, that’s the only way you can do it in the playoffs,” he said. “You have to bring your ‘A’ game every week, and this is stop one.”
Except for Jackson, the Ravens’ offense is in fairly good health, as running back J.K. Dobbins rested last week and backfield partner Gus Edwards is set to return after clearing concussion protocol. But that qualifier carries a lot of weight. Jackson has become synonymous with Baltimore’s offense.
Regardless of available personnel, Zeitler said the Ravens can’t be counted out.
“Once you step out on that field, you have a chance,” he said. “No matter who’s out there, whatever we’re doing, we have a chance.”
When Hamilton was selected by the Ravens in the first round of last year’s NFL draft, the Ravens’ propensity for the playoffs crossed his mind.
“There are a lot of teams who are rebuilding and stuff like that and to be selected to a team that’s pretty consistently been one of the best teams in the league for the past however many years, it’s a blessing,” the former Notre Dame standout said Friday.
For rookies like Hamilton, center Tyler Linderbaum, tight end Isaiah Likely and second-year players like Odafe Oweh, Sunday will mark their first NFL postseason game. Otherwise, many Ravens players have playoff experience.
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“Our guys understand playoff football,” Harbaugh said. “We’ll be ready for it, for sure.”
Ravens at Bengals
Sunday, 8:15 p.m.
TV: Chs. 11, 4
Radio: 97.9 FM, 101.5 FM, 1090 AM
Line: Bengals by 8 1/2