(WIVB)–At the end of November, the Baltimore Ravens were a team in crisis. The coronavirus had run through the team with a vengeance. Over a span of 10 days, two dozen players had been placed on the COVID-19 reserve list. There were four unique strains of the virus in the team facility.
The Ravens’ game with Pittsburgh, originally scheduled for Thanksgiving night, was moved several times and eventually played on the following Wednesday. A dozen players, including star quarterback Lamar Jackson, sat out in quarantine that night against an unbeaten Steelers squad.
Baltimore lost, 19-14, with Robert Griffin III and Trace McSorley playing quarterback with dubious results. It was the Ravens’ third straight loss, dropping them to 6-5. They were in danger of missing the playoffs after going 14-2 a year earlier. Skeptics believed that the NFL, and the virus, had caught up to them.
Once again, the world had underestimated Lamar Jackson. When Jackson returned from quarantine, he appeared different somehow, more emotionally wired, more like the man who won league MVP a year earlier.
The Ravens haven’t lost since. They won their last five games in the regular-season and earned a wild-card berth. Last weekend, they rallied to beat Tennessee, 20-13, avenging an upset loss in last year’s playoffs and notching their first playoff win after falling flat in Jackson’s first two NFL seasons.
“It’s just my mindset,” Jackson said on a video conference call on Tuesday. “I’m attacking the game more, being more aggressive. In the beginning of the season, I was conservative a lot, just standing back and getting sacked a lot more.”
“But as the season went on, if my first read’s not there an, the second read’s not there, I take advantage of what the defense gives me.”
He’s been taking it in chunks. Over the last six games, Jackson has carried 72 times for 556 yards and five touchdowns. Those are the sort of rushing numbers you’d expect from an elite tailback, the kind Lamar produced when breaking Michael Vick’s record for rushing yards by a quarterback in 2019.
The Baltimore offense has been on a roll since the COVID crisis. During the six-game winning streak, the Ravens have averaged 34.3 points a game and 425 yards of total offense. Jackson has completed 67.7 percent of his passes with 11 touchdowns and just four interceptions in that time.
“To me, it’s an accumulation of a lot of things,” said Ravens head coach John Harbaugh, who has reached the postseason nine times in 13 seasons. “The work begins to pay off. Who can measure whether the rest helped? It’s impossible to say for sure. Collectively, we played better. That’s always going to help your quarterback. It’s a group thing, a team thing.”
Now, the Ravens confront their toughest test yet: An AFC divisional round road game on Saturday night against the equally hot Bills, who have won their last seven games. There are three NFL teams on current winning streaks of six or more: The Ravens, Bills and Green Bay Packers.
The Bills are a 2.5-point favorite over Baltimore, which says the teams are basically even in the eyes of the public. The numbers bear that out. During their seven-game winning streak, the Bills are averaging 425 yards a game, exactly what the Ravens are producing in their run.
So it figures to be an offensive show. Certainly the TV moguls expect more fireworks than in last year’s Bills-Ravens game in Buffalo. The teams combined for only 466 yards in Baltimore’s 24-17 win. Jackson had 185 yards of offense (40 rushing), the fewest of his MVP season. He did throw three touchdown passes in the win.
“They played a really solid game against us last year,” said Ravens guard Bradley Bozeman. “They did the things they needed to do to execute. We have to figure out how to make adjustments and have a more productive game against them this year.”
“Greg Roman and all the coaching staff has put a pretty good plan together,” Bozeman said. “We’re ready to go out there and execute it regardless of what plays they call or what the scheme might be. So we’re going to go out there and execute and control what we can control.”
Josh Allen had a much rougher time than Jackson in last year’s home loss to the Ravens. Allen went 17-for-39 passing that day for 146 yards. He was sacked six times and ran only twice for 9 yards. It’s the last time Allen completed under 50 percent of his passes in a game.
Allen has elevated his game to another level this season. He broke all of the Bills’ pertinent passing statistics and made himself a viable candidate to win the league MVP title that Jackson captured a year ago.
It’s a fascinating matchup, one that should be worthy of the prime-time slot on Saturday night. Allen and Jackson, the two most polarizing members of the famed 2018 quarterback draft class, meeting for the first time in the playoffs. One of them will get to his first AFC title game next week.
Jackson was under a lot of heat heading into the wild-card game. He had played in two playoff games in his first two seasons and lost both. The critics who wondered if he was a capable enough passer to succeed in the NFL would have been howling if he’d lost a third straight playoff game.
He felt the criticism, and was determined to show the world against the Titans. On the night before the game, Jackson gave a rare speech to his teammates. Marlon Humphrey, the Ravens’ star cornerback, said he was certain his team would win when he heard Jackson’s inspiring words.
“I’m really not a vocal leader,” Jackson said. “I pretty much lead by example. But I wanted my guys to focus and do our job. Just take it one play at a time until it’s zero,zero, zero on the clock. We just got to keep the same mentality going into this game.”
Jackson threw an early interception and the Ravens fell behind, 10-0. You could hear the critics whispering, ‘Here we go again.’ Then Jackson hit his stride. He broke loose for a dazzling, 48-yard touchdown run late in the first half to tie the game. He led the Ravens to a go-ahead score in the third quarter and they held on from there to earn a trip to Buffalo.
The 48-yard TD run was the second-longest by a quarterback in NFL playoff history, behind Colin Kaepernick’s 56-yarder in 2013. He carried 16 times for 136 yards and now has two of the three top three playoff rushing performances by a quarterback in NFL history.
“That definitely felt like a playoff game,” Jackson said. “I was getting smacked. There was a lot of aggression out there. You could just feel the environment on the field. Everyone said the narrative has changed, but we still got games to play. We’ve got one playoff game down, but we’ve got a tough opponent coming up Saturday.
“That’s our main focus. I’m not worried about the past. The Tennessee game is over with. We’ve got to focus on Buffalo, and that starts now.”