Should the Ravens rest their starters against the Steelers?
Jen Badie, editor: Yes, though I can see both sides of the argument. Three weeks is a long time to go without live game action, and we saw how lethargic the Ravens were for almost a whole half against the Cleveland Browns after having more than a week off between games. But it’s just not worth risking quarterback Lamar Jackson or another key player getting hurt. Can you imagine if Jackson played a quarter against the Steelers and suffered a season-ending injury? Coach John Harbaugh made the right call, and he’ll have his team ready to play after the bye week.
C.J. Doon, editor: Yes. As tempting as it might be to keep Lamar Jackson and the Ravens offense in rhythm, an extra week to heal some bumps and bruises is always worth it at the end of a long season. John Harbaugh knows how to push the right buttons to keep this team motivated, so complacency shouldn’t be an issue, either.
Daniel Oyefusi, reporter: Yes, and if I had to take a guess, key starters such as Matthew Judon, Mark Andrews and possibly Ronnie Stanley will be limited in addition to those the team already announced wouldn’t be playing. For all the talk about the risk of starting slow in the divisional round of the playoffs, there would be even greater scrutiny if the Ravens were to lose an integral piece of their roster in a meaningless Week 17 game.
Peter Schmuck, columnist: Not all of them, of course. That really isn’t possible with the number of players allowed on the active roster, but John Harbaugh already has ruled out Lamar Jackson, Marshal Yanda, Brandon Williams, Earl Thomas III and injured Mark Ingram II. There will be a few others on the sideline, but a lot of regulars will get significant playing time, so everybody should keep their fingers crossed.
Jonas Shaffer, reporter: They can’t rest all of them. It’s not like they have a backup kicker. The Ravens will do what they think is best, whether that means keeping a top starter like Matthew Judon in for three series or three quarters. As John Harbaugh said, teams can have only so much flexibility with a 53-man roster.
Childs Walker, reporter: With only 46 active players on game day, the Ravens won’t be able to rest all of their starters. But they’ve already said they’ll sit Lamar Jackson and several key veterans, which is the right approach. You wouldn’t want any of those players to get hurt in a game with no affect on the Ravens’ playoff seeding. And the Ravens are going to have a long layoff before their first playoff game regardless, so the idea that an extra week of rest will make them rustier seems silly.
Which team is the biggest obstacle for the Ravens in the AFC: Chiefs or Patriots?
Badie: The Chiefs. The Patriots are not the scary team that they have been in the past, and Lamar Jackson has lost twice to Patrick Mahomes and Co. Jackson struggled in both those games, completing 35 of 67 passes and rushing for 113 yards.
Doon: The Chiefs. The Ravens defense is vulnerable against quarterbacks who can beat the blitz, and Patrick Mahomes might be the best at that in the NFL. Kansas City has the only offense in the AFC that can keep up with the Ravens offense, and the Chiefs held Lamar Jackson to 46 rushing yards in the previous meeting. If the Ravens had to play in Foxborough, I’d say the Patriots, but we’ve seen what the Ravens can do against this historically good New England defense at home.
Oyefusi: The Chiefs. The Patriots don’t have the offensive personnel to test the Ravens for four quarters. In recent weeks, teams have had success targeting Jimmy Smith and Marcus Peters on the outside. The Chiefs have the quarterback and receivers to give the Ravens defense problems, and Kansas City’s defense has improved over the course of the season.
Schmuck: The Chiefs. Not only are they the only one of the four other locked-in AFC playoff teams that have beaten the Ravens since Week 14 of the 2016 season (and they’ve done it twice), they have the only other offense that is as explosive as the one Lamar Jackson directs here in Baltimore. If you must take a side when the Chiefs inevitably play the Patriots in the divisional round, hold your nose and root for Tom Brady and Bill Belichick.
Shaffer: The Chiefs are playing like the better team now, but assuming the Patriots hold on to the second seed, it is awfully tough for a team to win two straight games on the road against well-rested teams. It’s a toss-up for me. Kansas City’s defense is playing like a top-10 unit, and New England could be getting healthier on offense.
Walker: This is not as easy a call as some are making it out to be. Never underestimate the resourcefulness of Bill Belichick and Tom Brady. That said, the prospect of facing a healthy Patrick Mahomes with all his key weapons and an improved Chiefs defense is more daunting. The Ravens have lost to the Chiefs twice in the last two seasons, so perhaps that will be the hump they have to surmount.
Which of the Ravens’ potential divisional round opponents — Texans, Bills, Titans, Raiders or Steelers — has the best chance of pulling off the upset?
Badie: I don’t think that any of those teams will beat the Ravens in the divisional round, especially in Baltimore. The Texans, Bills and Steelers haven’t been able to defeat them in the regular season. The Raiders’ wins have all come against non-playoff-caliber teams. So I’ll go with the Titans. The Titans have beaten the Chiefs, and had won six out of seven games until coming across the Texans and Saints. Quarterback Ryan Tannehill is playing well, with 20 touchdowns to six interceptions in just 11 games (nine as a starter) and a completion rate of 70.7%. He could give the Ravens secondary some problems.
Doon: The Titans. The Bills and Steelers might have better defenses, but Ryan Tannehill has been one of the league’s best quarterbacks since taking over as the starter for Marcus Mariota, and Derrick Henry could run wild against the Ravens defense. Deshaun Watson and the Texans are scary, too, but Houston couldn’t even hang with the Ravens when it visited Baltimore this season.
Oyefusi: The Bills. Buffalo was one fourth-down conversion from heading into overtime against the Ravens and its defense stymied Lamar Jackson into one of his worst first halves of the season. The Bills will also have the benefit of having played the Ravens this season and should add some wrinkles to their game plan in a rematch.
Schmuck: It’s a toss-up between the Texans and Bills, but I’ll go with Houston. The Ravens beat both of them during the regular season and blew out the Texans. But the playoffs are a different animal and I sense that the Texans are more dangerous, in part because the Ravens had such an easy time with them a few weeks ago.
Shaffer: Depending on their health, the Texans could be a really tough test. Will Fuller gives the offense another dimension that it lacked when it visited Baltimore, and a limited J.J. Watt is still better than no J.J. Watt. Watch out for the Titans, though. Ryan Tannehill has come into his own as one of the NFL’s best passers, and Derrick Henry is scary good.
Walker: It’s a tough call between the Bills, who have the best defense of the bunch, and the Titans, who have the more dynamic offense and have peaked in the second half of the season. Let’s say the Titans, because we don’t know exactly how that matchup will look.
Are we seeing Lamar Jackson at his apex? Or will he have a better season than this in his career?
Badie: It’s hard to say a second-year quarterback is at his apex, even though this season has been so special with Jackson breaking the NFL quarterback rushing record (and some opponents’ ankles along the way). So I think he is likely to have a better season, especially if he continues to have a high-caliber supporting cast of players around him. He has shown a lot of growth in the passing game this season (and is leading the league with 36 passing touchdowns), but he can also continue to improve in that regard.
Doon: Jackson has often expressed interest in succeeding more as a passer than a runner, so it’s possible we might not see him put up such staggering rushing totals as he gets older. Plus, this season has been statistically one of the best ever. He’s just the third quarterback to throw 30 or more touchdown passes and six or fewer interceptions in a season, and the first to throw for over 3,000 yards and run for over 1,000. Can he really sustain that level of production year after year? He thrives on proving doubters wrong, so I wouldn’t bet against him.
Oyefusi: Who knows? Success can be fleeting in the NFL. Players have had great, all-time seasons, only to return to anonymity the following year. Health, and luck, will likely play a big role in determining Jackson’s future. But in an MVP-worthy season, he has displayed the humility and focus that is required to be a consistently great player.
Schmuck: Lamar Jackson has a lot of great football ahead of him, but it’s hard to imagine him having a better season that this one, during which he has done things no NFL quarterback has ever done before. That’s not because he isn’t capable of improving in several areas, but because the NFL is an adaptive league and it will be harder for him to put up these kinds of numbers year after year against a whole league of coaches scheming to stop him.
Shaffer: Jackson has improved every season in his football life, so why put a ceiling on him now? Next year’s offense might be even more potent than this year’s, and it could be his second in Greg Roman’s system. With Jackson’s work ethic and football IQ, it would be silly to call this his best iteration. Only injuries can stop him.
Walker: It would be hard to have a much better season than this when you factor in team performance. Jackson will probably continue to improve as a passer, but chances are he’ll become a more selective runner, so we might not see him challenge his own single-season record for a quarterback. It’s not that he’s hit his apex. It’s just that he could become a better player without ever having a better season.