The Ravens rested key starters on offense in hopes of putting their best foot forward next weekend in a playoff rematch with the Bengals. Despite four turnovers and a 27-16 loss, they like their chances after their defense played hard and well against streaking Cincinnati.
John Harbaugh cared far more about having a healthy team for the playoffs than about home-field advantage.
The Bengals might as well have saved their angst about the NFL’s vote to give the Ravens a chance at home-field advantage via coin flip. As it turned out, Harbaugh was more concerned with fielding a fresh, healthy team next weekend.
The Ravens treated their much-debated regular-season finale against the AFC North champs like a preseason contest, taking no chances with their most important offensive players and turning the keys over to undrafted rookie quarterback Anthony Brown.
We did not see J.K. Dobbins, the league’s most productive runner over the last month, or tight end Mark Andrews, the Ravens’ only consistent pass catcher. We did not see quarterback Tyler Huntley, whose lingering shoulder soreness and injured wrist limited him in practice all week, or guard Kevin Zeitler, the team’s most consistent blocker. Cornerback Marcus Peters, working his way back from a calf injury, was absent. So was his fill-in, Brandon Stephens, who fell ill Friday.
The Ravens did not wave a white flag, but they did play with one hand tied behind their backs.
Asked for his rationale, Harbaugh said: “What’s best for our team for our season.”
His choices acknowledged the reality of where the Ravens stand. They’re not roaring into the postseason from a position of strength. They will be underdogs next week. So they might as well rest up and reserve every trick in their playbook in hopes of landing a playoff haymaker, perhaps with Lamar Jackson back at quarterback.
Players did not seem bothered by, or focused on, Harbaugh’s two-week strategy.
“It doesn’t matter who we have up,” tackle Morgan Moses said. “I have faith in every football player we have in this locker room, whether it’s Anthony Brown at quarterback, whoever it is. We’ve proven that we can win with anybody.”
The only hiccup in the plan occurred when running back Gus Edwards, a player Harbaugh would like to rely on next week, was ruled out Sunday after he was assessed for a head injury.
It’s not as if home-field advantage has done the Ravens much good in the past. Some of the most painful postseason upsets in franchise history have unfolded at M&T Bank Stadium, while the Ravens have made their greatest runs as road warriors.
A decade ago, Harbaugh rested many of his best players in a regular-season finale in Cincinnati. The Ravens lost to close out a rocky last month of the season. One week later, they began an improbable run to the Super Bowl. This is a less accomplished team with far less experience on big stages, but Harbaugh is doing his best to recreate that old alchemy.
After a resolute defensive effort, the Ravens are eager for a rematch.
Why would the Ravens feel uplifted by an 11-point loss to an opponent they will face again in a week?
Well, they started a third-string quarterback, held out their two best playmakers, turned the ball over four times and still gave the Bengals an uncomfortable afternoon.
While Harbaugh did not go all out on offense, he did play most of his best defenders, save for Peters. They were handed short fields to guard in the first half and fell behind because of it. But they held the Bengals and quarterback Joe Burrow to 4 yards per play and 5-for-15 on third downs. Joe Mixon rushed for all of 27 yards on 11 carries. Wide receiver Tee Higgins was a nonfactor with one catch on seven targets.
By many measures, the Ravens actually defended better than they did in their Week 5 victory over Cincinnati, against a star-studded offense that was riding high and hungry for a blowout. After two very good performances against Burrow and his merry band, they’re eager for a rubber match.
“This should be motivation for us going into next week,” outside linebacker Justin Houston said.
Did the Bengals, like the Ravens, hold some of their best tricks in reserve? Houston wasn’t so sure, saying, “It didn’t seem like they were holding back any of their punches.”
The Ravens respect the talent they’ll face next weekend but feel they’ve gauged the power of Cincinnati’s best shot. They might be wrong. The Bengals did win eight in a row to pass them in the AFC North. But the Ravens did not seem nearly as dispirited Sunday as they had a week earlier after losing to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
“It’s kind of exciting,” cornerback Marlon Humphrey said. “We just studied them. As [safety Chuck Clark] said, we just had a scrimmage. It’s a scrimmage we wish we would have won. But to play them again, they’re pretty familiar with us. We’re familiar with them. So it’s just going to be: Who’s the better team? When you play a team three times, the better team should usually show.”
Don’t assume we’ll know Lamar Jackson’s plans for this week until he reveals them.
For yet another week, the weightiest drama spinning around the Ravens had little to do with the game played Sunday. With their season finally down to a do-or-die game, everyone, including Ravens coaches and players, has the same question: Will Jackson play?
Anonymously sourced reports from national media have offered conflicting and confusing prognoses. Harbaugh has said he’s hopeful but started his news conference at the end of last week by reiterating how much uncertainty remains around the situation.
Don’t assume anyone other than Jackson knows what he will do.
Fans and talking heads arbitrarily decided last week that Harbaugh’s tone and expression signaled frustration with his quarterback when in fact, his message has remained consistent since Jackson limped to the locker room in Week 13. He knows the Ravens will stand a far greater chance in the postseason if they have the player around whom their offense is designed. He hopes Jackson will be healthy enough to perform. But it’s outside his control.
Teammates know Jackson gives them their best chance to win but said they’re not obsessing about his status. “He wants to get back; it just all depends on whether he can get healthy or not,” Humphrey said. “Weirdly, we haven’t really been waiting. I mean, obviously, we want him back, but as far as defense, we’ve been like, ‘I know [Tyler Huntley is] a good quarterback, I know [Anthony Brown] is a good quarterback.’ Obviously, Lamar Jackson is one of one, so it would be great if we could add him back. If not, we’ll go with who we got.”
Other outside observers have extrapolated that Jackson is staging a de facto holdout to signal his dissatisfaction with the Ravens’ unwillingness to meet his contract demands. Again, there’s no evidence to support this given the way he conducted himself in the summer and through the 13 games he started before his injury.
The scrutiny is understandable because of Jackson’s importance, the complexities of his contract situation and the Ravens’ helplessness on offense without him. But that should not lead us to fill the vacuum of concrete information with wanton speculation.
Anthony Brown was not ready to beat one of the league’s best teams in a hostile environment.
Brown, the undrafted rookie from Oregon, said he did not find out he was starting in place of Huntley until Sunday morning. Afterward, he wished he had settled in more quickly.
He was in a tough spot, making his first NFL start against one of the league’s most talented teams in front of a rowdy crowd. Several of his receivers, most notably Demarcus Robinson, made life more difficult with drops. But as Brown said, his three turnovers helped the Bengals build a commanding lead.
His unhappy day began in the first quarter, when Bengals defensive tackle B.J. Hill surged in on him and forced a flat-footed heave into the arms of safety Jessie Bates III.
“Yeah, getting hit while I’m throwing doesn’t really matter,” he said, avoiding excuses. He said he should have checked down to Edwards.
Brown’s second interception wasn’t his fault. He threw a touch behind wide receiver Robinson but suffered terrible luck when the ball bounced into the arms of Bengals cornerback Mike Hilton. Burrow needed just three plays to capitalize with a touchdown pass to Ja’Marr Chase.
With the Ravens theoretically back in the game, down 17-7, Brown took them right out of it with a fumble in the end zone, recovered by Cincinnati for a touchdown. After the Ravens stripped Burrow deep in Cincinnati territory in the third quarter, Brown threw low and behind an open Charlie Kolar on third down, erasing another chance for a touchdown.
The rookie played with more poise and made some excellent throws — his 286 passing yards were the most for a Ravens quarterback since Jackson threw for 318 yards in Week 2 against the Miami Dolphins — as the Ravens tried to rally, but as he was the first to note, all of that was too little, too late.
“He’s a smart guy,” Harbaugh said. “He’ll take those things and learn from them.”
Rookie tight ends Isaiah Likely and Charlie Kolar showed the Ravens do have pass-catching talent they’ve yet to exploit.
Likely made the play of the day for the Ravens when he went up for a contested ball along the sideline and came down with a 28-yard gain to keep them moving toward a touchdown. The rookie tight end was easily the team’s most productive playmaker against the Bengals, evoking memories of his preseason brilliance and his stellar work stepping in for an injured Andrews in the Ravens’ Week 8 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Despite this team’s notable lack of pass-catching talent, the Ravens have yet to figure out how to unlock Likely in tandem with Andrews. His best games have come with his Pro Bowl teammate off the field. The rookie was his own worst enemy early in the season, frustrating coaches with penalties, drops and other mental mistakes. But his weekly snap counts have hovered in the teens in recent weeks. Couldn’t the Ravens have at least given him a shot to help pull their passing game out of hibernation?
We largely stopped talking about Likely as the season rolled on because he was a minimal part of the game plan, and the Ravens’ chief problems lay elsewhere. But all the qualities that excited us last summer — that ability to outleap and outmuscle defenders, his furious runs after the catch — are still there.
“It just put my confidence back higher than what it was, just showing I am who I am,” Likely said after his eight-catch, 103-yard performance.
At the same time, he said it’s on him to force his way onto the field. “I definitely dropped the ball a lot more than I’m used to,” he said in assessing his season so far. “It’s something I’m going to attack in the offseason and really just become that reliable option for the quarterback. At the end of the day, I make Mark [Andrews’] job easier if I’m doing my part and with the receivers. And then, that opens up the run game and now you’re talking about an offense that’s unstoppable.”
His classmate, Kolar, waited until Week 17 to debut but added four catches for 49 yards against the Bengals, flashing his potential as a big target in the middle.
“Those guys are big targets, and they’ll both tell you they want two catches back,” Harbaugh said of Likely and Kolar. “That’s how competitive those guys are. Those guys are going to be really good players for many years to come.”