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Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson (8) celebrates his touchdown run against the New England Patriots with offensive tackle Ronnie Stanley (79) during the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Nov. 3, 2019, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Gail Burton)

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Ravens-Titans: Five predictions for Saturday night

Posted on 10 January 2020 by Luke Jones

There was a time when Ravens-Titans was the best rivalry in the NFL.

Divisional realignment all too quickly separated these old AFC Central foes, but Baltimore and Tennessee met three times in the playoffs in a nine-year period with each of the encounters memorable. We all remember Ray Lewis, Eddie George, Ed Reed, and Steve McNair, but even lesser names such as Anthony Mitchell and Gary Anderson elicit a reaction from both fan bases to this day.

We’ll see if Saturday’s divisional-round meeting provides the next instant classic or simply serves as another checkpoint for 14-2 Baltimore’s Super Bowl aspirations after a 12-game winning streak to close the regular season. An upset win would send the Titans to their first AFC Championship appearance since the 2002 season while the Ravens aim to advance to the conference championship for the first time since 2012 and host the AFC title game for the first time in franchise history.

It’s time to go on the record as these teams meet for the fourth time in the postseason with Baltimore holding a 2-1 edge and the road team prevailing each time. The Ravens and Titans are tied 10-10 in their regular-season history with Harbaugh’s team winning the most recent meeting, a 21-0 shutout in Nashville last season.

Below are five predictions for Saturday night:

1. Lamar Jackson will become the fourth quarterback in NFL history to rush for 100 yards in a playoff game. Trying to predict what happens with Mark Ingram and his lingering calf injury is tricky, but there’s no questioning Jackson’s involvement in the ground game after he carried the ball 11 or more times in eight games this year. Titans coach Mike Vrabel quipped the best way to slow Jackson is to tie his shoelaces together, but it’ll be interesting to see how the 23-year-old comes out of the gate in the biggest game of his life after three weeks off. It makes sense for Greg Roman to throw in an extra designed run or two early on to help his young quarterback settle in, but Jackson will play like the MVP.

2. Derrick Henry and A.J. Brown will each score for the Titans. The Tennessee offense isn’t as diverse as Baltimore, but it isn’t devoid of unique talent with the 2019 rushing champion and a 1,000-yard rookie receiver who finished second in the NFL in yards per catch (20.2). With the Ravens using nickel and dime packages so often to play to their strength in the secondary, it’ll be interesting to see how Wink Martindale balances the need to contain Henry while not allowing Brown or Corey Davis to get loose for Ryan Tannehill to take play-action shots. The Ravens rank 21st in yards per carry allowed and 19th in run defense efficiency, but an early lead would really neutralize Henry’s impact.

3. Marcus Peters will intercept a pass to stall a Tennessee drive. In a similar way to how Tannehill helped transform a stagnant Titans offense into one of the NFL’s best units, the acquisition of the ball-hawking Peters was the biggest factor in the dramatic improvement of the Ravens defense from the first month of the season. With Peters and a healthy Jimmy Smith on the field, Baltimore allowed 200 net passing yards only once in the final eight regular-season games. The Titans rank first in the NFL in red-zone touchdown percentage, but the Ravens are third in red-zone defense, meaning something will have to give. Three of Tannehill’s six interceptions this season came inside the red zone.

4. Hayden Hurst and Nick Boyle will catch red-zone touchdowns. Tennessee will be without top cover linebacker Jayon Brown due to a shoulder injury suffered last week, which is bad news for a defense that’s already had its problems covering tight ends this season. However, the effectiveness of Pro Bowl selection Mark Andrews will be something to monitor as he continued to be limited with a right ankle injury this week and hasn’t appeared to move very well during practice time open to reporters. Even if Andrews isn’t 100 percent, Hurst and Boyle are very capable of making plays in the passing game and could take advantage of the Titans devoting more attention to the top option at the position.

5. A fast start will neutralize Tennessee’s game plan and propel the Ravens to a 30-16 win. As I wrote earlier this week, Baltimore starting strong could be the difference between a comfortable blowout and a game that goes down to the wire with the way the Titans like to play and their confidence level after a big win in New England last week. You always wonder how a team will respond after extensive time between meaningful games, but the culture created by an accomplished head coach should alleviate concerns of potential rust or coming out flat. The Ravens are the best team in the NFL, have the league’s MVP, and enjoy home-field advantage while Tannehill and the Titans have been a good story in the second half of the season that will come to its conclusion on Saturday night.

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Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson celebrates after throwing a touchdown pass against the Los Angeles Rams during the first half of an NFL football game Monday, Nov. 25, 2019, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

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After long layoff, top-seeded Ravens starting fast would ease biggest concerns

Posted on 09 January 2020 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Lamar Jackson says “it feels like it’s been forever” since he last played in a game, a full 20 days by the time the Ravens kick off their playoff opener against Tennessee on Saturday.

Rest and extra time to prepare are clear advantages for a team already superior in virtually every meaningful way to the Titans, who became the first team since the 2009 Ravens to beat New England in the wild-card round last weekend. But that’s an accomplishment and a path that shouldn’t be taken lightly, especially by an organization that relished an underdog road journey to two Super Bowl championships and a number of other playoff victories over the last two decades.

While the top-seeded Ravens focused on themselves and could prepare for the big picture over the better part of these last few weeks, the Titans have been busy fighting for their January lives with a Week 17 win at Houston to clinch a wild-card spot and a 20-13 victory over the Patriots in Foxborough just to get to Baltimore this weekend. If the 14-2 Ravens are slow to flip the switch in their first meaningful game since Week 16, that urgency is something that can work in No. 6 seed Tennessee’s favor.

“You just keep playing. You keep that edge. You are kind of going week to week,” said head coach John Harbaugh, whose Ravens knocked off a heavily favored Denver team on the way to a Super Bowl title seven years ago. “There’s not time to breathe or think about anything. I absolutely think that can be a plus. It has been for us in the past. We’ve been pretty good on the road over the years in the playoff times historically. There’s certainly something to that, and we’re well aware of that on the other side of it.”

That’s why the Ravens starting fast is more important than the typical way we discuss that cliche ahead of a big game. In fact, nearly every potential concern or pitfall discussed this week would be mitigated by the NFL’s best offense scoring on its first couple drives and one of the league’s top defenses making life difficult for the Tennessee offense early on. Such a beginning would make a blowout victory far more likely than the chance of an upset at M&T Bank Stadium.

Any concern of the Ravens being rusty or losing their edge after such a long layoff would be swatted away with a 10-0 lead before fans finish their first in-game beverage. That’s hardly out of the question considering Baltimore scored on its first two drives in eight of its 16 regular-season games while the Titans did that just once — Week 17 against a Texans team resting multiple starters — and managed to score on their opening drive only three times in the regular season before last Saturday’s playoff win.

But a slower start by the Ravens — one like we saw in Cleveland three weeks ago, for example — would give Tennessee the opportunity to carry over some of its wild-card weekend mojo and execute its optimal game plan. While quarterback Ryan Tannehill and the Titans rode NFL rushing champion Derrick Henry to an ordinary two-touchdown output against the Patriots, their offense ranks first in average yards per play, second in expected points added per play, and second in percentage of drives ending in touchdowns since Tannehill took over at quarterback in Week 7. It was a forgettable postseason debut for Tannehill with just 72 passing yards, a touchdown, and an interception last Saturday, but dismissing a 136.4 passer rating using play-action fakes and 22 touchdown passes to just six interceptions in 12 regular-season games is a brazen position.

Even if you’re waiting for the former Miami quarterback to turn back into a pumpkin after surprisingly leading the NFL in passer rating, Tannehill has been excellent against the blitz, something the Ravens do more frequently than anyone. Sustainable for the long haul or not, the formula has been there for Tannehill to succeed and the Titans to score prolifically with Henry and a good offensive line keeping them on schedule and rookie wide receiver A.J. Brown emerging as a big-play threat down the stretch.

It all begins with the 6-foot-3, 247-pound Henry, whom defensive coordinator Wink Martindale compared to a video-game creation at running back that “shouldn’t be that big and be able to run like he runs.” His propensity to get to the edge and cutback on outside-zone plays is a running style that’s given the Baltimore run defense some problems this season, another reason why a fast start is so important. An early deficit puts more pressure on Tannehill and minimizes Henry’s impact, even if he does find some running room over the course of the game.

“I think when the run game gets going, that’s when the play-action shot is available because the defense is so aggressive trying to stop the run,” safety Earl Thomas said. “If we knock that out from the start, I think we’ll be fine. If Tannehill tries to pass on us, I don’t think that will go in their favor. We know they’re going to try to run the ball. But we just have to stop the run and play sound on the back end. I think that will take care of the play-action pass.”

A strong beginning would also extinguish any lingering memory of last year’s playoff disappointment, a loss that drove Jackson’s remarkable improvement in the offseason that molded him into the league’s MVP. Of course, the 23-year-old needs no validation after a historic season in which he led the NFL in touchdown passes and shattered the single-season rushing record for a quarterback, but he’s waited and prepared 12 months for this very moment. Jackson is the first to tell you that all he cares about is winning the Super Bowl, which was what he famously promised on draft night less than two years ago.

That loss to the Los Angeles Chargers was not only a catalyst for the construction of the Ravens’ “revolutionary” offense this past offseason, but it serves as a painful reminder of how quickly playoff hopes can be dashed if you’re not ready. At one point in the first quarter of that 23-17 loss, Baltimore fumbled on three straight plays from scrimmage. Such a sequence seems unfathomable for a team that has won a franchise-record 12 consecutive games and has set all kinds of records, but a sleepy beginning and a critical mistake or two at the wrong time would give the upstart Titans their chance at an upset.

We’ll find out if it’s easier said than done Saturday night, but the Ravens merely need to pick up where they left off as the NFL’s best team over the last three months. A slow start hardly means they’re doomed, of course, but Baltimore would much prefer to leave no doubt from the opening kick and crush any hopes on the Titans’ side.

“Can’t start too late. You have to attack fast,” said Jackson about last year’s playoff loss. “It doesn’t really matter what quarter it is. First or second [quarter], you have to attack. You just have to finish the game strong.

“You can’t just go into the game playing half-assed. You’ll have the same results.”

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