OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- The Baltimore Ravens face one of the toughest remaining schedules in the NFL, and they just lost their top defensive player to a season-ending injury.
Even at 8-4 and atop the AFC North, the Ravens have reached a crossroads of their injury- and drama-filled season. With five weeks remaining, Baltimore has about the same chance to reach the AFC championship game (20.8%) as it does to not make the playoffs (16.6%), according to the projections from ESPN’s Football Power Index.
Where the Ravens eventually end up -- whether it’s competing for a trip to the Super Bowl or watching the entire postseason at home for the first time since 2017 -- largely depends on quarterback Lamar Jackson and his ability to break out of the worst rut of his four-year career.
If Jackson can perform the same heroics as he did down the stretch last season, Baltimore can win the division and make noise in the playoffs. If Jackson struggles like he has over the past three games, the Ravens could be in store for a late-season collapse.
"For anybody ... that’s their story -- the challenges that you face,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "It’s never going to be easy. Sometimes it maybe seemed easy and seems easy, and sometimes you get on a roll, but it’s too competitive. Everybody is too good for it to be easy all the time. And he doesn’t expect that -– none of us do. So, we’ve just got to work through it, fight through it and get the job done.”
Over the past month, Jackson has gone from carrying the Ravens to becoming a liability at times. The explosive plays have dwindled and mistakes increased. In Jackson’s past three games, his Total QBR of 35.0 ranks 22nd in the NFL, ahead of the likes of Andy Dalton, Daniel Jones and Trevor Siemian. He has thrown three touchdowns and six interceptions, totaling more sacks (13) than 20-yard completions (five).
There are plenty of reasons why Jackson has not played like the quarterback who became the fastest in NFL history to reach 5,000 yards passing and 2,000 yards rushing. Baltimore lost its top two running backs (J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards) to season-ending knee injuries before the season and lost Pro Bowl left tackle Ronnie Stanley after one game. The dominant Ravens running game is sputtering, outside of Jackson’s scrambles. The pass protection has been problematic.
Dan Orlovsky, a former NFL quarterback who is now an ESPN analyst, puts more of the blame on the Ravens’ offensive system.
"The reason why they’ve had success is because Lamar is playing to an MVP level,” Orlovsky said on Get Up. "But listen, the next five games, it’s not going to work out that way. You can’t continue to play an undisciplined, undetailed, unstructured type of pass game and think that you’re going to beat the Browns, the Packers, the Bengals on the road, the Rams ... you’re just not going to win most of those games.
“I cannot for the life of me understand how coach Harbaugh can be, and deservedly so, in the coach of the year conversation and their offense look so gross at times.”
The Ravens have failed to score 20 points in four straight games. That’s the longest single-season streak for Baltimore since 2005, when Kyle Boller was quarterback.
Some say Jackson isn’t seeing the field as well as he did earlier this year. He’s holding on to the ball too long. He’s more hesitant to run when no one is open.
In his past two weeks, Jackson has thrown a career-worst four interceptions against Cleveland and was sacked a career-high seven times at Pittsburgh.
"Lamar Jackson has to be better, too,” Ryan Clark, a former NFL safety and ESPN analyst, said on Get Up. "Lamar Jackson has to get the football out of his hand. Lamar Jackson has to understand where the hot [read] is. I’m not saying that is his fault. But he is part of the blame for this because he’s the quarterback."
The head-scratching part about Jackson’s troubles is how so many of his mistakes are uncharacteristic.
This season, his QBR against the blitz (41.1) ranks 26th in the NFL. In his previous two seasons, his QBR against the blitz (91.1) ranked only behind Patrick Mahomes.
This season, his 13 interceptions are the second most in the league. In his previous two seasons, he was picked off a total of 15 times (21 quarterbacks had more over that span).
This season, Jackson has been sacked an NFL-worst 37 times. In his previous two seasons, he was sacked 52 times, which ranked in the middle of the league.
Still, the confidence in the locker room hasn’t wavered with Jackson, who is tied with Mahomes (37-11, .771) for the best winning percentage since taking over as the Ravens starting quarterback in the middle of the 2018 season.
“We believe in eight,” Ravens nose tackle Brandon Williams said after the 20-19 loss at Pittsburgh, referring to Jackson by his jersey number.
The Ravens believe in Jackson because they’ve seen how he has played down the stretch before. Last season, Jackson finished the regular season 5-0, throwing 11 touchdowns and three interceptions while rushing for 430 yards.
But last year’s schedule featured four losing teams in the final five weeks. This year, Baltimore doesn’t face a team with a losing record the rest of the way, playing at Cleveland (6-6), home against Green Bay (9-3), at Cincinnati (7-5) and home against the Los Angeles Rams (8-4) and Pittsburgh (6-5-1).
What makes these games more challenging is Baltimore has lost seven starters to season-ending injuries. The latest was cornerback Marlon Humphrey tearing his right pectoral muscle, which puts more pressure on Jackson and the offense to take charge.
Jackson said he’s “very confident” the Ravens' offense will rebound.
"You saw on the last drive, we were rolling,” Jackson said after the loss in Pittsburgh. "We hit passes, guys running routes and doing what they do, catching the ball and getting [yards after the catch]. We just do that consistently, and we'll be fine. We’ve just got to do it early and keep it going, finish the whole game like that. Not just doing [it for] one half and slowing down.”