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.”