The last game that Lamar Jackson finished last season was the Ravens’ Week 12 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars. He did not finish it in a good mood.
With just over two minutes remaining inside EverBank Stadium, Jackson had given the Ravens a 27-20 lead. That wasn’t enough. The Jaguars won in regulation, 28-27, surging ahead on quarterback Trevor Lawrence’s fourth-quarter heroics. Afterward, Jackson was asked about losing in Jacksonville as both a star in college and now in the NFL.
“How would you feel if you lose?” Jackson said, rubbing his chin as if to underline the absurdity of the question. “Exactly. That’s how I’m feeling. I don’t like losing. ... But it is what it is. Just got to move on, get ready for next week. That’s all. Can’t dwell on it, though.”
A week later, Jackson hurt his knee. The Ravens won just two of their next six games, including the playoffs. The Jaguars, meanwhile, took off, winning five or their final six regular-season games and advancing to the divisional round, where they nearly upset the Kansas City Chiefs.
Sunday’s rematch on “Sunday Night Football” could be another inflection point for the two division leaders. A win by the Ravens (10-3) would stamp them as heavy favorites to claim the AFC’s top seed. A win by the Jaguars (8-5) would stop a two-game slide and hold off their challengers in the AFC South for at least another week. Here’s what to watch in their Week 15 matchup.
1. The Ravens don’t have a lot of weaknesses in their pass defense. They generate sacks, force takeaways and limit explosive plays. But there is one surprising susceptibility: quick releases.
On drop-backs of 2.5 seconds or less this season, the Ravens’ defense ranks 22nd in the NFL in expected points added per play and 18th in success rate, according to TruMedia. Against drop-backs longer than 2.5 seconds, they rank first in both metrics.
That apparent disconnect might actually be connected. What the Ravens show quarterbacks before the snap is not often what they show after the snap. As defenders hurry into position, blitzing or dropping, shifting from one zone structure to another, holes appear, if only briefly.
Los Angeles Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford exploited that vulnerability Sunday better than perhaps anyone the Ravens have faced this season. On a 32-yard completion to wide receiver Cooper Kupp, who’d slipped past cornerback Arthur Maulet, he threw into a deep zone vacated by safety Geno Stone. On a 21-yard pass to tight end Davis Allen, Stafford fired a pass down the seam, again left wide open by an exotic zone blitz.
Sometimes, the Rams just won their one-on-ones, as former Ravens wide receiver Demarcus Robinson did on a 22-yard contested catch over cornerback Marlon Humphrey. Other times, the Ravens made it easy for them; Kupp had a 27-yard catch and run after a coverage bust on a play-action fake. Overall, Stafford went 15-for-20 for 162 yards and two touchdowns on quick throws.
The Ravens’ next few weeks will put their defensive integrity to the test. Among qualifying quarterbacks, the Jaguars’ Lawrence is third in the NFL in average time to throw (2.51 seconds). Not even an injured ankle slowed him in a loss Sunday to the Cleveland Browns (2.52 seconds per throw).
The Miami Dolphins’ Tua Tagovailoa, who’ll come to Baltimore in Week 17, is the fastest to throw in the league (2.4 seconds).
2. Travis Etienne was one of the NFL’s best running backs last season, averaging 5.1 yards per carry and rushing for 1,125 yards. The Ravens didn’t have to worry about him too much in their Week 12 loss in Jacksonville, though; the 2021 first-round pick left the game with a foot injury after just two carries for 3 yards.
Etienne hasn’t missed a game for the Jaguars this season, but the Ravens might not have to worry much about him Sunday, either. At least not in the ground game. Etienne’s averaging just 3.7 yards per carry, toiling behind an offensive line that’s given him few holes to charge through. Last year, according to TruMedia, Jacksonville ranked fifth in average yards before contact per rush. This year, the Jaguars have fallen to 30th.
That’s good news for a Ravens defense that allowed 128 rushing yards (4.3 carry) to the Rams on Sunday and could be missing safety Kyle Hamilton (knee), a key run defender when he lines up in the box.
“I’m not going to call it a concern, but absolutely an area for improvement,” defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald said Thursday. “It goes with every aspect of the defense. You’re always evaluating it.”
3. Need proof of how much more the Ravens trust Lamar Jackson as a passer? Look at the team’s diminished reliance on play-action passes.
Over his first four years as a starter, Jackson used a run fake on 35.6% of his drop-backs, the second-highest rate among the 46 quarterbacks with at least 500 pass attempts from 2019 to 2022, according to TruMedia.
This year, Jackson ranks 12th in play-action rate (26%) among the 40 quarterbacks with at least 100 pass attempts. With fewer run fakes, the Ravens have made more targets available all over the field. Jackson has attempted 273 passes on plays with five receivers running routes, and he’s on pace to smash his single-season career high (280, set in 2019).
Still, the Ravens might want to lean into their old ways Sunday. Since Week 8, the Jaguars’ defense ranks last in the NFL in EPA per play and second to last in success rate against play-action passes. In that span, opposing quarterbacks have torched them for 96 yards per game and six touchdowns on 74% passing, with just one interception.
Even backup quarterbacks have gotten their licks in lately. The Cincinnati Bengals’ Jake Browning went 8-for-10 for 114 yards on play-action looks in Week 13, and the Browns’ Joe Flacco went 8-for-11 for 133 yards and two touchdowns Sunday.
4. Sunday’s game could be one for the Ravens’ record books.
Jackson is 14 completions and 94 passing yards away from setting single-season career highs. He completed 265 passes for 3,127 yards in 2019.
With at least a half-sack, defensive lineman Justin Madubuike would tie Jared Allen, Chris Jones, Trey Hendrickson and Shaun Ellis for the longest streak of consecutive games (11) with at least a half-sack in NFL history. Madubuike leads the Ravens with 11 sacks this season.
Inside linebacker Patrick Queen is 10 tackles away from surpassing his single-season career high (117), set last season.
Justin Tucker is one field goal away from becoming the first kicker in NFL history to make at least 25 attempts in each of the first 12 years of his career. With a successful kick from at least 50 yards, he’d also pass Sebastian Janikowski (58) for the second most in NFL history, behind only Matt Prater (78).
A notable streak, however, could be in jeopardy. The Ravens have rushed for at least 100 yards in 29 straight games, the NFL’s longest active streak. The Jaguars have allowed at least 100 rushing yards in just five of their 13 games this season and rank second in the NFL in run defense efficiency, according to FTN.
5. The Ravens should know ahead of kickoff Sunday night whether they can clinch a playoff spot with a win. Every game with postseason implications will be over by then.
Here are their nine clinching scenarios, ranked from most to least likely:
1. Ravens win AND Denver Broncos lose to or tie the Detroit Lions AND Houston Texans lose to or tie the Tennessee Titans
2. Ravens win AND Broncos lose or tie AND Pittsburgh Steelers lose to or tie the Indianapolis Colts
3. Ravens win AND Broncos lose or tie AND Buffalo Bills lose to or tie the Dallas Cowboys
4. Ravens win AND Broncos lose or tie AND Cleveland Browns lose to or tie the Chicago Bears
5. Ravens win AND Bills lose or tie AND Texans lose or tie
6. Ravens win AND Bills lose or tie AND Steelers lose or tie
7. Ravens win AND Bills lose or tie AND Browns lose or tie
8. Ravens win AND Browns lose or tie AND Steelers and Colts tie
9. Ravens win AND Texans lose or tie AND Steelers and Colts tie
With a win Sunday, the Ravens’ odds of earning the AFC’s No. 1 seed would jump from about 54% to 68%, according to The New York Times’ playoff picture. With a loss, they’d fall to about 31%.