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NFL reportedly expanding playoff field to 14 teams for 2020

Posted on 20 February 2020 by Luke Jones

The last-minute touchdown pass from Andy Dalton to Tyler Boyd in the 2017 regular-season finale knocked the Ravens out of the playoffs in one of the most painful moments in franchise history.

Under the NFL’s new proposed collective bargaining agreement, however, Cincinnati’s shocking fourth-and-12 score would have been of little consequence to John Harbaugh’s team that finished seventh in the AFC that season. According to multiple reports, the league is expected to expand the playoff format from 12 to 14 teams as early as the upcoming 2020 season, the first expansion of the field since the 1990 season. In other words, those 9-7 Ravens would have still gone to the playoffs.

The league is also hoping to increase the regular season from 16 to 17 games with the preseason being reduced to three contests.

Under the new playoff format, only the top team in each conference would earn a first-round bye with the other three division winners each hosting wild-card teams in the opening round of the playoffs, increasing the total number of first-round games from four to six. Such a change would intensify the battle for the coveted No. 1 seeds — which become even more valuable now — but it would also put more mediocrity in the playoffs as 15 of the 20 teams finishing seventh in their respective conferences over the last 10 seasons had fewer than 10 wins.

Was there too much of an appetite for that hypothetical first-round meeting between Devlin Hodges and Patrick Mahomes in Kansas City last month? Speaking of Pittsburgh, the new format would have meant four more playoff appearances for the Steelers over the last eight seasons, which probably wouldn’t have sat too well in these parts.

Of course, playoff expansion and a 17-game regular season — while conveniently ignoring player safety ramifications — will mean more money for both owners and players, and it’d be naive to think fans won’t continue to eat it up, making dissenting opinions like this one all but moot. It’s also fair to recognize there were only 28 teams in the NFL when the playoff field increased from 10 to 12 teams three decades ago, making a one-team increase in each conference more palatable.

But there’s always the long-term concern of any sport — even the mighty NFL — hurting its regular-season product when loosening the exclusivity of its playoff field. Sure, leagues love bigger TV deals for the playoffs, but ask the NBA and NHL — and their fans — what that’s done for interest in their 82-game regular seasons over the years when more than half of their teams make the postseason. Major League Baseball is reportedly considering expanding its playoff field again after already devaluing its uniquely long regular season over the last 25 years and having significant problems with profit-hungry owners not doing all they can to try to win.

When was the last time a team you felt was deserving was left out of the playoffs?

If the NFL increases its playoff field to 14 teams, what’s to stop the league from going to 16 in a few years to generate even more TV revenue in January and February? Can you imagine the insane money if you just let everyone in and create a 32-team NCAA-like tournament?

From the players’ perspective, that’s why postseason expansion should be accompanied by an increase in team and league-wide spending requirements. Adding more playoff teams lowers the benchmark to qualify, which gives more profit-minded owners less incentive to spend to the cap. If a team doesn’t view itself as a No. 1 seed contender, why not pocket a little more money and hope 8-8 or 9-7 still gets you a hat and T-shirt by the end of the regular season? That line of thinking just became easier.

Increasing revenue is great and an extra playoff team in each conference is hardly the end of the world, but lowering the competitive bar has potential drawbacks down the road that aren’t always apparent.

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Baltimore Ravens running back Gus Edwards runs for a touchdown against the Houston Texans during the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Nov. 17, 2019, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Gail Burton)

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Ravens-Steelers: Five predictions for Sunday

Posted on 28 December 2019 by Luke Jones

A 12th win in a row would give the 2019 Ravens the first 14-2 record in franchise history, but there’s only one meaningful factor to monitor in Sunday’s regular-season finale against Pittsburgh.

That’s navigating 60 minutes of football without any injuries that could hinder a championship run.

Coaches and players have spoken all week about playing to win against their biggest rival, but John Harbaugh’s easy decision to rest MVP favorite Lamar Jackson, Marshal Yanda, Mark Ingram, Earl Thomas, and Brandon Williams tells you exactly how important this game is to Baltimore’s ultimate goal of winning the third Super Bowl in franchise history. It goes far beyond trying to eliminate an AFC North rival from playoff contention, setting additional regular-season records, or “maintaining momentum.” The threat of any top seed losing its edge or getting rusty is real, but that isn’t eliminated by simply playing Week 17 at full strength and doesn’t match any risk of losing a key player in a game lacking meaning.

It’s time to go on the record as the Ravens and Steelers meet for the 48th time in the regular season with Pittsburgh holding a 25-22 advantage as well as a 3-1 edge in playoff encounters. Baltimore is 13-13 against the Steelers in the Harbaugh era and seeks its first season sweep since 2015.

Below are five predictions for Sunday:

1. The Ravens will rest or limit more starters than the aforementioned names. Harbaugh hasn’t revealed additional plans for playing time beyond what he announced Monday, but you’d assume he’ll hold out other key players or at least limit their snaps. In Week 17 of the 2012 season, he deactivated Yanda, Ray Lewis, Terrell Suggs, Haloti Ngata, Anquan Boldin, and Bernard Pollard and limited the likes of Ed Reed, Joe Flacco, Ray Rice, Matt Birk, Torrey Smith, and Dennis Pitta to 16 or fewer snaps. Based on that as well as past preseasons, the Ravens can navigate a game with roughly 40 players.

2. Baltimore will set a new NFL record for rushing yards in a 16-game season. We saw Jackson’s impact on the run game from the moment he took the starting reins last year, so it’ll be interesting to see how productive the group is with Robert Griffin III at quarterback. The Ravens need 93 rushing yards to break the 1978 New England Patriots’ mark of 3,165, but they’re facing a Pittsburgh defense ranking third in the NFL at 3.7 yards per carry allowed. The volume of carries should still be there to set the record even if the Ravens average well below their season mark of 5.6 yards per rush.

3. JuJu Smith-Schuster will catch only his fourth touchdown of 2019. It was a quiet return for Smith-Schuster last week after a four-game absence due to a knee injury, but he provides a much-needed inside target for rookie quarterback Devlin Hodges and a sputtering Pittsburgh offense. Should the Ravens choose to limit Pro Bowl cornerback Marlon Humphrey’s playing time, there isn’t an attractive backup option to play in the slot, a position Baltimore struggled to fill early in the year after Tavon Young was lost for the season in August. That’s even more reason not to play Humphrey too much in this game.

4. Justin Tucker will make his longest field goal of the season. We know a record-setting offense has marginalized the kicking game this year, but it’s mind-blowing to think the best in the NFL and three-time Pro Bowl selection hasn’t even attempted a field goal from 50 yards or more since Week 2. Tucker has just one missed field goal — and two unsuccessful extra points — this season, but Sunday will feel like a throwback performance with the Ravens relying more on field position and the kicking game. Some rain could make it tricky, but Tucker will connect on a field goal from longer than 51 yards.

5. The Ravens will be held under 20 points for the first time all season in a 17-16 loss. I haven’t picked against the Ravens since October and don’t plan to again in January, but this game simply doesn’t matter and can only harm their Super Bowl aspirations in the event of a notable injury or two. Baltimore winning with backups against an ordinary Steelers team wouldn’t surprise me by any means, but expecting the same intensity and brand of Ravens football — even if it’s against Pittsburgh — with Jackson and other top players in street clothes on the sideline is a lot to ask in a game in which the opponent has everything to play for. It will be a competitive game with points at a premium, but we’ll come away reminded why Jackson is the easy choice as the league MVP this season.

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Twelve Ravens thoughts following Week 5 win in Pittsburgh

Posted on 08 October 2019 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens snapping their two-game losing streak with a 26-23 overtime win in Pittsburgh, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. Sunday’s game was far from “must-win” territory, but the Ravens came away with an “exhale” victory. It wasn’t pretty and real concerns persist, but you never take a victory at Heinz Field for granted, no matter the Steelers quarterback. We’ve seen backups win in this rivalry before.

2. Marlon Humphrey made the play of the game, but I’m impressed by his willingness to point out when he can be better, highlighting breakdowns and bad plays like his failed strip of JuJu Smith-Schuster earlier in the game. The 23-year-old wants to be the NFL’s best, and he’s getting closer.

3. Justin Tucker receives more publicity than any kicker in the league, but it still doesn’t do justice to his brilliance. Not only did he make tying and winning kicks in the open end of a stadium notoriously tough on kickers, but his kickoffs gave Pittsburgh poor field position all day.

4. Josh Bynes hadn’t played in a game since November and hadn’t been with a team since being cut by Arizona in March before signing Wednesday, starting, playing 43 snaps, and recording five tackles and an interception. That is remarkable and speaks to his drive to be ready for that opportunity.

5. That sequence of events also reflects how desperate the Ravens had become at inside linebacker. It’s telling that Kenny Young was inactive and Chris Board played only one defensive snap, but moving Patrick Onwuasor from the “Mike” spot back to the weak-side position was also a plus.

6. Lamar Jackson had his worst passing performance of the season, but his 14 carries for 70 yards reminded why you like his skill set even when he’s not succeeding from the pocket. He needs to be better, but his legs were vital as Baltimore couldn’t run between the tackles.

7. Was it any coincidence the offense fizzled from the time Marquise Brown left the game with an ankle issue? The ground game is paramount, but this passing attack isn’t very potent when Brown or Mark Andrews is limited physically. Both were banged up by the end of Sunday’s game.

8. The last drive of the first half was embarrassing. Starting at their 11 with 1:36 to go and two timeouts, the Ravens ran twice to move the chains, huddled with the clock running, took a sack, huddled again, and then Jackson was picked. Did the coaches leave the field early?

9. I don’t believe Earl Thomas had malicious intent with his helmet-to-chin hit on Mason Rudolph, but he appeared to be caught between trying to disrupt the passing lane and hitting the quarterback, which resulted in him launching into Rudolph. That was a disturbing scene.

10. The offensive line struggled against the Pittsburgh front, but Ronnie Stanley continues to have a Pro Bowl-caliber season with Pro Football Focus grading him first in pass blocking and fifth overall among offensive tackles. He’s going to be commanding a ton of money in the near future.

11. Maurice Canady went from being waived at the end of the preseason to starting and playing very well in Pittsburgh. His performance has been crucial, especially with second-year cornerback Anthony Averett disappointing in his opportunity to fill in for the injured Jimmy Smith.

12. Truthfully, I’m not yet sure how good the Ravens are when the teams they’ve defeated have a combined two wins, but Baltimore has the same number of victories as the rest of the AFC North combined. That always helps as a team tries to address its problems.

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