2008. A fresh faced quarterback is drafted in the first round by the Baltimore Ravens. Combined with a rookie head coach, the two lead Baltimore to the wild card weekend of the NFL Playoffs. Wild card weekend would see the Ravens defeat the Miami Dolphins in a rematch of a regular season game. Ultimately the playoff run would fall agonisingly short of the “biggest game in sports” with defeat in the AFC Championship Game.
Fast forward ten years and this season’s Ravens are following an eerily familiar path. Lamar Jackson replaces Joe Flacco as the first round rookie quarterback leading the team to the post season promised land. When Jackson takes the field on Sunday night he’ll be the youngest starting quarterback in NFL playoff history. The rookie coach from that 2008 season is still the head coach. The matchup for wild card weekend will be a repeat of a regular season win for the Ravens.
That week 16 win for the Ravens over the Chargers, in LA, was a statement victory in so many ways. In holding the Chargers to 198 yards of offence, the Ravens defence proved it can compete with the historic Baltimore units such as the 2000 and 2012 Super Bowl winning teams. Lamar Jackson showed poise and finesse throwing the ball, alongside his usual array of darting runs and 360 degree spin moves.
Ravens look for repeat…
So can we expect a repeat inside M & T Bank on Sunday evening?
Having gone in to LA and returned victorious, conventional wisdom would suggest that Baltimore has the upper hand on its home turf.
However, the Chargers have the unenviable distinction of having better form on the road. They are 7-0 outside of LA. Their sole “road” loss came in the LA Coliseum to the Rams.
Life on the road seems to suit the Chargers just fine. As rookie safety Derwin James says: “We love coming into your place — whichever team you may be — and doing our thing. We come into your place ready to play. Our motto around here is ‘Any squad, any place,’ that’s what we say around here.” (per ESPNs Eric D. Williams).
James’ rookie season has been sensational, earning him All Pro honours. He is just one piece of a defence that figures in the top 10 of all defensive stats. The key to success will be whether they have learned how to shut down Jackson and the rest of the Ravens rushing attack which had it all their own way back in December.
The Chargers defence will again have their hands full with tight ends Mark Andrews and Maxx Williams. As Lamar Jackson’s specific skill set shapes Baltimore’s schemes, the importance of the two tight ends grows. Andrews in particular seems to be blossoming as a player in recent weeks, no doubt benefiting from time spent practicing with Jackson as backups. You sometimes find that as a backup quarterback morphs in to the starter he drags the players he has built a relationship on the practice field with along for the ride.
It may also be the tight end position that proves the difference for the Chargers offence.
Henry on the hunt…
Hunter Henry was cruelly denied a break out season in 2018 when he suffered an ACL tear back in May. Prior to that, the Chargers were confident enough in Henry’s ability to allow future Hall of Famer Antonio Gates to leave the building. All indications out of LA point to Henry making a comeback on Sunday. Expectations should be tempered, but he will add another dimension to an offence that ranks sixth in total points.
The Chargers received another offensive boost in the week. Melvin Gordon looks fighting fit and ready to go after limping out of last weeks win over Denver.
With two dynamic defences on the field on Sunday night, I expect a tight fought affair.
Nip and Tuck game…
Justin Tucker hit three field goals in the December match up. I’m predicting him to account for 12 points in a 19-17 Ravens win.
I’ve been hot on the Chargers in the AFC since the start of the season but there really is something about this years Ravens. For all the flair and trickery of Kansas City, and the cold hard post season success of the Patriots, I think Baltimore is the team everyone wants to avoid.
Not one Baltimore player leads the league in any of the statistical categories. However, the Ravens defence is the number one unit in the league which speaks volumes of their approach under Harbaugh.
Ravens defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale has said: “the thing that impresses me the most is, and what he’s (Harbaugh) taught us all is, if you don’t care who gets the credit, there will be plenty credit around if you do it as a team”
Rewind ten years to Harbaugh’s first season with the team. That year, the Ravens’ Super Bowl run perished at the hands of the AFC North champion Pittsburgh Steelers.
That won’t be a problem for this 2018 outfit.
Photo Credit: USA Today