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Five things we still need to learn about the 2023 Ravens going into the playoffs

We made it.

The Ravens wrote a glorious preamble. Have they ever delivered a more perfect couplet of regular-season performances than they did in dismantling the San Francisco 49ers and Miami Dolphins? But we have reached the hour upon which they, especially quarterback Lamar Jackson, will truly be judged. Four years ago, they dominated up to this point only to come up short on the playoff stage. All those who care about this franchise, internally and externally, want to know: Will this time be different?

With that in mind, here are five questions still looming as the Ravens prepare to host their postseason opener.

Will we see MVP Lamar Jackson in the playoffs?

There’s not a lot of justice in using three poor performances to undermine a brilliant athlete who has won 75% of his regular-season starts and who’s favored to win his second NFL Most Valuable Player Award shortly after his 27th birthday. But those are the terms Jackson set for himself when he promised Baltimore a Super Bowl victory the night he was drafted, a vow he reaffirmed when he signed his extension with the Ravens in April.

The fact is that for all those victories, for all his unforgettable highlights, Jackson has played a few of his worst career games in the playoffs.

Toss aside his rookie year, when home fans booed and called for Joe Flacco to be inserted in the Ravens’ 23-17 loss to the Los Angeles Chargers. This tale of disappointment truly began after a mighty 2019 season in which Jackson stormed to his first MVP award only to throw an interception, falter in the red zone and squander two third-quarter drives with turnovers in a 28-12 divisional-round loss to the Tennessee Titans.

Jackson avenged that defeat in the 2020 wild-card round but played poorly again on a chilly, blustery night in Buffalo, where the Ravens scored just three points and he threw away their best scoring chance on a red-zone interception.

Jackson has not played in the postseason since. After that loss to the Bills, fans and analysts outside Baltimore locked on to a narrative — bold winner in the regular season, skittish loser in the playoffs — he still has not outrun.

There’s reason to believe Jackson is set to revise this tired story. In his sixth season, he’s in greater charge than ever before of an offense designed by swearing, swaggering coordinator Todd Monken. He’s throwing to more dynamic targets in Zay Flowers and Odell Beckham Jr., with tight end Isaiah Likely serving as a nifty stand-in for Mark Andrews, who might be working toward a playoff comeback. Coach John Harbaugh has repeatedly used the word “mature” to describe this year’s team, and that starts with its on-field leader.

The vibes could not be better. Jackson played his best games of the season against the Ravens’ toughest opponents and when they could smell the AFC’s No. 1 seed. But he has to do it with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line.

Can the Ravens avoid coming out flat three weeks after their last meaningful game?

Comparisons to 2019 — similarities extend from the Ravens’ closing dominance, to Jackson’s MVP brilliance, to their resting of key starters in a meaningless regular-season finale against the Pittsburgh Steelers — are unavoidable.

Jackson seems exhausted with this plot. Others, such as left tackle Ronnie Stanley, say that loss to the Titans sticks with them as a reminder of what not to do this time around.

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“I remember we came out really, really slow in that Titans game,” nose tackle Michael Pierce said.

He’s not wrong. The 2019 Ravens were used to trampling opponents before halftime, but the Titans scored first after Jackson’s pass tipped off Andrews’ outstretched hands into the arms of Tennessee defensive back Kevin Byard, whose interception set up a 35-yard touchdown drive. The Titans built their advantage to 14-0 on a 45-yard play-action bomb one snap after Jackson failed to convert on fourth-and-1. In a matter of moments, Tennessee turned the tables on the league’s brawniest bully.

The Ravens would mishandle opportunities to get back in the game, but the die was cast early in the second quarter. Did this have something to do with the way Harbaugh and his players had handled the previous three weeks after they clinched home-field advantage and a first-round bye? Did they lose their edge as starters rested in the finale against Pittsburgh, as they took a weekend off while the Titans fought to advance?

Harbaugh does not see the experience that way. He’ll tell you the Ravens had the right plan for Tennessee, that they outgained their opponent 530 yards to 345 and lost because they simply did not execute properly on a few plays that should have produced touchdowns. Though he’ll make some tweaks, he has indicated he will not coach this year’s team in reaction to 2019. He again opted to rest Jackson and several other key players against the Steelers, acknowledging the risk of injury outweighed any potential gain.

No matter what the Ravens say between now and the opening kickoff, we won’t know what any of it meant until they play the next game. Even then, causality will be elusive, just as it was four years ago.

“We have a good plan, and Coach ‘Harbs’ has a good plan,” Pierce said. “We’ll be working mostly through the break and obviously getting guys healthy, but we’ll be working, and we’re definitely mindful [of] what happened last time.”

How healthy are they?

The Ravens needed this week off.

They dealt with significant injuries — Andrews’ ankle, J.K. Dobbins’ torn Achilles tendon, a season-ending knee injury to scintillating rookie Keaton Mitchell — at various points of the season without being derailed. But they became noticeably more battered in those victories against Miami and San Francisco, brilliant as they were. They finished off the Dolphins without starting cornerbacks Marlon Humphrey and Brandon Stephens or Pro Bowl safety Kyle Hamilton. Pro Bowl linebackers Roquan Smith and Patrick Queen are nursing pectoral and shoulder injuries, respectively. They took the unusual step of rotating their offensive tackles in hopes of getting veterans Stanley and Morgan Moses across the finish line. Their most dependable blocker, Kevin Zeitler, tried to fight through knee and quadriceps pain to face the Dolphins but could not make it. Outside linebacker Odafe Oweh and safety Geno Stone left the Steelers game with ankle and knee injuries, respectively.

The good news, Harbaugh said, is that all those who were out or questionable against Miami and Pittsburgh are expected to be ready for the playoff opener. He has not ruled out an Andrews return if the Ravens keep winning. Jackson, who could not finish the 2021 and 2022 seasons, is the one player this team cannot go without, and he’s fit.

But playoff football is a war of attrition, with everyone hurting to some degree and catastrophe always one awkward step away. We can’t know if Hamilton’s sprained knee and Humphrey’s sore calf will cost them a few steps of mobility, if persistent pain will make it harder for Queen and Smith to secure the middle of the field or for Stanley and Moses to keep Jackson safe.

The Ravens aren’t the most wounded team in the playoffs. In fact, they might go into their divisional-round matchup with a healthier roster than possible opponents such as the Dolphins and Cleveland Browns. But they’re dealing with enough issues that we’ll all be playing amateur trainer as we watch the next week of practices.

Might they be at a disadvantage in a slugfest?

This question seems to defy logic because we’re talking about the league’s most productive ground attack and a defense that prides itself on beating up high-concept offenses.

The numbers don’t lie, however. The Ravens, in part because of coordinator Mike Macdonald’s tactical concessions, have not smothered the run in recent weeks. The 49ers’ Christian McCaffrey averaged 7.4 yards per carry against them. Miami’s De’Von Achane averaged 7.6. Pittsburgh pounded out 155 rushing yards.

In most cases, opponents have fallen behind the Ravens, making it impossible to keep grinding. This suggests Macdonald’s gambit of going with lighter boxes to minimize big plays and maximize takeaways is a smart one. His defense has allowed the fewest points of any in the league. The modern adage that teams run because they’re winning instead of winning because they’re running has held up.

But what if a playoff opponent strikes first and strikes hard as the Titans did four years ago, before handing the ball to Derrick Henry to carry them home? Are the Ravens, with so many of their most important defenders playing through injuries, primed to stand up to such a frontal assault?

On the other side of the ball, Jackson will hand off to Gus Edwards, who does not run through contact as consistently as he did a few years ago, and Justice Hill, who played brilliantly against the Dolphins but has carried just 26 times over the past eight games. The Ravens found an electric threat in Mitchell to mitigate the loss of Dobbins, but he’s gone until next season. Ex-stars Melvin Gordon III and Dalvin Cook seem unlikely to deliver home runs. Which means the overwhelming burden will fall on Jackson when the Ravens need tough yards. He guarantees a potent running game, no matter who’s back there with him, but he also needs to manage risk.

The Ravens have out-rushed opponents in 14 of 17 games this season, but they’re vulnerable enough on defense and down enough bodies on offense that this customary advantage is no given for the games ahead.

Is this both the first and last best chance for this version of the Ravens?

More than 20 Ravens, including Queen, Beckham, Stone, Zeitler, defensive tackle Justin Madubuike and edge rusher Jadeveon Clowney, will become free agents after this season. They’ll keep some of those — Madubuike figures to be the priciest and most likely to be kept in place using the franchise tag — but can’t afford them all with Jackson, Stanley, Humphrey, Andrews and safety Marcus Williams each eating up at least $15 million of their 2024 salary cap.

The road ahead is also uncertain for key non-playing figures in the franchise. Macdonald and Monken, along with defensive line and associate head coach Anthony Weaver, have popped up on interview lists for coaching vacancies. Their staffs — the Michigan-Ravens defensive think tank is particularly hot at the moment — could be raided to fill pro and college coordinator openings. Vice president of football administration Nick Matteo and director of player personnel Joe Hortiz could end up running front offices in other NFL cities.

This is the nature of success in the NFL. Poachers take from the fleshiest carcasses. The cap forces painful choices.

We should not overstate the speed with which the Ravens’ window is closing. Harbaugh, general manager Eric DeCosta and owner Steve Bisciotti still lead one of the most stable brain trusts in the sport. They paid Jackson all that money because when you have a franchise quarterback, the window stays open. Stars such as Hamilton, Smith, Flowers and center Tyler Linderbaum are just beginning their runs.

But the Ravens’ next dominant team won’t look exactly like this one. We need only look back to 2019 to realize how quickly NFL life proceeds. About 80% of the players from that roster are playing elsewhere or retired four years later. Offensive coordinator Greg Roman, one of the league’s most lauded assistants that year, did not coach in 2023. Defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale just resigned from the New York Giants, the team he joined after he departed Baltimore.

So yes, urgency is called for as the Ravens prepare for this Super Bowl push.

AFC divisional round

TBD at Ravens

Jan. 20-21, TBA

TV: TBA

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