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Ravens coach John Harbaugh mum on whether QB Lamar Jackson, other notable starters will play vs. Steelers

Jan. 1—By Brian Wacker — bwacker@baltsun.com

PUBLISHED:January 1, 2024 at 4:18 p.m.| UPDATED:January 1, 2024 at 4:18 p.m.

The similarities to 2019 are extraordinary if not eerie.

Just like four years ago with one week remaining in the regular season, the Ravens are AFC North champs, have locked up the top seed in the AFC and will get a first-round bye and home-field advantage until the Super Bowl. Quarterback Lamar Jackson is also almost certain to be the NFL's Most Valuable Player again. And just like four years ago, they'll play a Pittsburgh Steelers team that needs to win to keep their playoff hopes alive in what will be an otherwise meaningless contest to Baltimore in the final game of the regular season.

Now it remains to be seen if the Ravens rest many of their starters — most notably Jackson — the same way they did back then.

"I have not made a decision on any personnel yet," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said Monday. "We gotta work through the injury part of it first, and it'll take us 24 to 48 hours to get a real handle on that."

Among the notable players dealing with injuries are safety Kyle Hamilton (knee), cornerback Brandon Stephens (ankle) and right guard Kevin Zeitler (knee/quad), none of whom were active Sunday.

Cornerback Marlon Humphrey also suffered a calf injury in the first quarter against Miami, while defensive back Daryl Worley later suffered a neck stinger. Neither returned to the game. Defensive tackle Michael Pierce (neck stinger) and inside linebacker Patrick Queen (shoulder) were also banged up during the blowout 56-19 win.

Those injuries alone could mostly dictate who doesn't play against the Steelers on Saturday, given there's only so much wiggle room with the roster on game day.

But the sting of what happened four years ago still lingers.

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In that Week 17 finale, Robert Griffin III started in place of Jackson, completed 11 of 21 passes for 96 yards and a touchdown, and running back Gus Edwards rushed for 130 yards on 21 carries in a downpour as Baltimore pounded the Steelers, 28-10.

Whatever enjoyment that was derived from dashing the dreams of a bitter division rival was short-lived, though. The Ravens laid an egg in a 28-12 divisional-round loss to the Tennessee Titans, as a rested but perhaps rusty Jackson threw two interceptions and fumbled once in the stunning home loss.

In losing, Baltimore became the first No. 1 seed to fall to a six-seed since 2010 and just the sixth team since 1933 to win at least 14 games in a season but fail to win a postseason game.

The stench of that memory is why Jackson hopes to avoid any complacency.

"We have to finish this season the right way," he said Sunday. "We have one obstacle. We finished that obstacle. We have [the] Steelers next week, so that's how I'm staying focused this season. [I'm] just taking it one game at a time like I've been preaching to you guys all season."

The performance also raised questions about whether Harbaugh should not have rested many of his starters in the regular-season finale, giving them two weeks off between games. After dispatching the Dolphins on Sunday, that same question is again at the fore.

But the scenario is also different this time.

The Ravens are dealing with several injuries. They're also operating on a short week after the NFL announced the game would be played Saturday at 4:30 p.m. after playing Sunday's game against Miami on a short week.

What lesson did Harbaugh take from 2019 that will inform his decision this year?

"That was a disappointment," Harbaugh said, recalling the experience. "Certain kind of seasons, different than this season, different team, different circumstances, different everything.

"I remember the experience and the choices we made, but the decisions we made for certain reasons and we thought they were the right decisions. What impacted what, how, in terms of us not playing our best football that day, it's hard to say what the cause and effect was. ... You've gotta look at everything through the lens of today, this team and the challenges that we're facing."

But after already losing running backs J.K. Dobbins and Keaton Mitchell to season-ending injuries and tight end Mark Andrews for at least the regular season, that should provide all the clarity Harbaugh's lens needs.

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