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Youngsters Lamar Jackson, Marlon Humphrey moving Ravens forward in playoff push

On Wednesday, Lamar Jackson was asked a question that was delivered simply but freighted with meaning: Were the Ravens now his team?

Coach John Harbaugh had, minutes earlier, named Joe Flacco the team’s backup quarterback. A starter in Baltimore for 10-plus years, a Super Bowl Most Valuable Player, a $100-plus million man, Flacco had ceded control of the offense to Jackson, a rookie. The face of the franchise would be on the sideline that weekend.

The news conference exchange was shared to Twitter. Cornerback Marlon Humphrey saw it. He laughed at the notion of the question. He did not seem surprised by the answer.

“It’s our team,” Jackson had said, “all of us together. It’s our team.”

The Ravens would not have beaten the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 20-12, on Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium without the hard-charging running of Gus Edwards and Kenneth Dixon or the reliable tackling of C.J. Mosley or the golden leg of Justin Tucker.

But as the team heads into the regular season’s final two weekends 8-6 and clinging to the AFC’s sixth playoff spot, the postseason at once so close and so far away, it’s clear that its offensive and defensive fortunes might hinge more on Jackson and Humphrey, respectively, than on any other players.

In Jackson’s five games as starter — four wins, one road loss to the AFC-leading Kansas City Chiefs — the Ravens have rushed for 1,152 yards, more than three NFL teams had all season entering Sunday’s games. And in Humphrey’s return to near-full strength Sunday, he anchored a secondary that held the Buccaneers’ No. 1 passing offense to 157 yards, a season low.

Afterward, the first-round picks were the two Ravens to stand up before the media at the lectern. Who better than them to speak to a result that epitomized the team’s new winning formula?

“Young players, in general, every game that they get, they’re going to get a little bit more experience, you know what I mean?” guard Marshal Yanda said. “You hope to see improvement a little bit each game. When you’re a young player, that experience is huge.”

There is only so much they can control. The Ravens emerged from Sunday’s action with the win they needed but not the loss (or losses) they hoped for. In the chase for the AFC’s second wild card — either the Chiefs (11-3) or Los Angeles Chargers (11-3) will likely get the No. 5 seed — the Indianapolis Colts (8-6) followed their win over the Houston Texans with a shutout of the Dallas Cowboys, while the Tennessee Titans (8-6) blanked the New York Giants for their third straight win.

About 250 miles from Baltimore, more disappointment. After Sunday’s win, some Ravens made tentative plans to go home and watch another game, hoping to fall asleep atop the AFC North. Then the Steelers (8-5-1) ended a three-game losing streak with a win over the New England Patriots. Pittsburgh remains a half-game ahead in the division, leading the Ravens as it has since Week 7.

All of which leaves Jackson and Humphrey and the 51 other Ravens set to play the Chargers on Saturday night little margin for error. If the Ravens fall in Carson, Calif., they could be eliminated from postseason contention the next day. With a win, their first playoff berth since 2014 would never seem closer.

“I just feel like we have grown men on the team, and we have to just move on from whatever situation it was before,” said Jackson, who finished 14-for-23 for 131 yards passing and one touchdown and 18 carries for 95 yards. “We have to make stuff positive, and our job is to win the game.”

Is Jackson himself a grown man, too? He did not clarify. The No. 32 overall draft pick does not turn 22 until next month, but teammates say he continues to improve from week to week, as all rookies must, and that he carries himself with the poise of a veteran, as all quarterbacks in a harried December must.

Early on a rain-soaked afternoon, Jackson did not set the world on fire with his dual-threat talents. He fumbled for the ninth time, a turnover the Buccaneers turned into a touchdown. He threw at least one pass that should have been intercepted. But there is only one quarterback whose talents are so rare that they invite praise like: “He’s the reincarnation of Michael Vick.”

And that came from Tampa Bay defensive tackle Gerald McCoy.

“He makes you play 11-on-11 football instead of 11-on-10,” Buccaneers coach Dirk Koetter said. “We had him wrapped up a couple of times, and he squirted out of there and was able to extend plays. They’re on a nice run with him in there at quarterback, and with that defense, they’re going to be a tough team to beat.”

Humphrey was not blameless, of course. His holding penalty gave Tampa Bay a first down at the Ravens’ 3 — the second end-zone violation in as many weeks for Humphrey — and the Buccaneers scored one play later to take a lead they’d hold for much of the second quarter.

But finding another mistake was as difficult as separating from the man himself. Humphrey’s crucial interception of a fourth-quarter pass by quarterback Jameis Winston was his first of the season — “Definitely felt like a long time,” he joked — but no player deserved it more. He finished with a game-high four passes defended, one more than safety Eric Weddle has all season.

“Last year, he was emerging,” cornerback Brandon Carr said of Humphrey, 22, the 16th overall pick in the 2017 draft. “This year, he is that guy. He’s been making plays for us since last year. He’s always had confidence; now he’s just putting it all together, just the mental part of the game, the classroom study. He’s a veteran guy, just plugging him in during the week with different things to work for. He plays an amazing game — a lot of the passion and a lot of fire right now. He’s a young guy with an active body, and he’s just out there doing his thing.”

Added Harbaugh: “Marlon Humphrey played at the level we expected him to play at, which is at the highest level.”

But they are still young players, Jackson and Humphrey, which means they are prone to ups and downs, an inconvenience at this point in the season. How will the offense fare when Jackson meets a rushing defense like the Chargers’, which, unlike most of the Ravens’ recent schedule, is actually half-decent? The Ravens held Tampa Bay to a season-low 241 yards Sunday, but could they still thrive if Humphrey’s groin injury resurfaces midgame?

The Ravens might not be any one player’s team, and their defense is still one led by veteran outside linebacker Terrell Suggs. But Jackson and Humphrey are good enough to lead the Ravens to the playoffs. And they know enough about how to get them there.

“I’ve been looking, hearing more about it,” Humphrey said of the postseason picture. “I never really was very familiar with how it works, who wins and who loses and all that, but I think the thing that plays in our favor is, all we have to do is win and we should be in.”

jshaffer@baltsun.com

twitter.com/jonas_shaffer

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