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Ravens’ cast of characters leads an unexpected playoff push

January 4, 2019

OWINGS MILLS, Md. Of the 12 teams to reach the NFL playoffs, few have the movie-worthy character types and plot lines that the Baltimore Ravens do.

They have the rookie quarterback with seven starts to his name, as well a skill set that made some question whether he should switch to wide receiver in the NFL (despite a Heisman Trophy on his resume).

They have the head coach from a big-name football family a man rumored to be facing a playoff-berth-or-you’re-fired directive earlier this season.

In a league dominated by offense, they have the No. 1 defense, a unit coached by a one-time truck driver and first-year coordinator.

Perhaps the Ravens are not the typical Hollywood underdog after December, when they proved they could hold their own against the conference’s best teams and won the AFC North in the last game of the regular season. But as the No. 4 seed, they’d be a dark horse choice to make a deep playoff run.

Although that’s somewhere the franchise has been before. After the 2012 season, they were seeded fourth in the AFC playoffs. They went on to win the Super Bowl.

“Everybody who’s been in the playoffs say it’s a whole new energy,” third-year defensive tackle Michael Pierce said. “I’m starting to feel that in practice and I’m sure the stadium will reflect that, too.”

The old coach and the new quarterback

The Ravens hit their bye week in a miserable spot they were 4-5, third place in their division, and they found out Joe Flacco had a nagging hip injury from their most recent game, a loss to the Steelers. It was Lamar Jackson time, if only because it had to be.

Since then, Baltimore has gone 6-1 starting the rookie, dual-threat quarterback, the only loss coming to the formidable Kansas City Chiefs in overtime. The Ravens haven’t leaned into Jackson’s rushing ability so much as they’ve dived head first into it, which created an altogether new offensive strategy. In Jackson’s seven starts, 59.5 percent of the offense’s total yards have come on the ground, the ways of the pass-happy NFL be damned.

Even this week, in a conference call with reporters, Chargers coach Anthony Lynn described Jackson as a “running back” before remembering to give credit to his passing, too.

Jackson will surpass Michael Vick’s mark to become the youngest starting quarterback in a playoff game in NFL history. Ironically, it’s Vick, the prototype of the new millennium dual-threat quarterback, to whom Jackson admired and to whom he is now compared.

Jackson called comparisons to Vick “pretty cool.”

“That’s a guy I looked up to growing up. But I’m playing like me,” Jackson said. “I’m playing out there. I’m not wearing his shoes. I’m not wearing his cleats or anything like that.”

The Ravens made it deep in the playoffs in some of Flacco’s early years, including his rookie season. Flacco is now expected to be a casualty of the Jackson era, his time in Baltimore nearing an end now that the rookie has established himself as the quarterback of the present, not just the future.

Coach John Harbaugh didn’t pinpoint what exactly the team would derive from the early Flacco years to use in Jackson’s playoff debut.

“I don’t know about any of that,” Harbaugh said. “We draw on all our experiences, for sure, so probably in some far recess of our mind, we draw on that and just try to move forward.”

After several wins with Jackson, the Ravens released a statement Dec. 21 saying Harbaugh would remain the team’s coach in 2019 and beyond a contract extension was in the works. If that was true, the terms haven’t been finalized as of yet, or the announcement is being saved until after the season. Some Baltimore sports columnists still feel that Harbaugh could be canned if the Chargers clobber the Ravens.

But for all the talk about Jackson and Harbaugh, the Ravens’ more dominant unit is on the other side of the ball.

The unapologetic defense

Don “Wink” Martindale has a graying mullet and a frank, conversational way of speaking. He comes across as a guy who spent a year long ago driving a semi around the Midwest for his family’s trucking company and that’s exactly his background.

After Martindale coached Baltimore’s linebackers from 2012 to 2017, he was promoted to defensive coordinator in the wake of Dean Pees’ retirement (which lasted four weeks before Pees joined his former player, Mike Vrabel, in Tennessee).

Martindale had only been an NFL defensive coordinator in one other season, for the Denver Broncos in 2010. He was fired. This time around, he’s put together the best defense in football in terms of yards per game (292.9) and second-best in points per game (17.9).

“We’re just looking forward to this game on Sunday and keep it rolling,” Martindale said. “We have such a great room, a great group and a great room full of people in there. We don’t want it to end.”

In addressing a question about blitzing at the end of Week 17′s game instead of playing zone, Martindale’s answer wandered over to the importance of sticking to a gameplan or a vision with no regrets.

“That’s a whole thing I talked to the defense about. Don’t have any shoulda, coulda, wouldas in your career,” he said. “If I see you going down that path, don’t come up to me 10 years later and say, ‘Man, I shoulda, coulda, woulda.’ Don’t have any of those.”

Baltimore buzzing

It hasn’t quite been 25 years since the old Cleveland Browns moved to Baltimore and reinvented themselves in purple and gold. By their 17th season in existence, the Ravens captured their second Lombardi Trophy. Some franchises have trudged along for decades without even reaching the Super Bowl.

It lends credence to the possibility that the Ravens are primed for another postseason run few people saw coming. It also explains why Baltimore is abuzz.

“The whole city of Baltimore seemed like they were screaming,” Martindale said of the Ravens’ playoff-clinching Week 17 win. “And from what I hear from phone calls and texts, I think they were, even the ones who weren’t there in the stadium.”

“The energy has been there every week. We didn’t lose any of that,” Harbaugh said. “It’s pro football, and yet, you bounce in the building on playoffs week, and you certainly feel like you’re refreshed. It doesn’t take a lot of sleep to get refreshed for the playoffs.”

Guard Marshal Yanda said he almost forgot what it was like to make the playoffs.

“Somebody was asking me about tickets today, and if we got tickets (for friends and family) during the playoff games, and I couldn’t really (remember),” Yanda said. “I was like, ‘Uh, it’s been a little while.’”

The Ravens dominated the Chargers in Los Angeles with a 22-10 win in Week 16, but the Chargers went 8-0 in road games in the regular season. So Baltimore will need every ounce of home-field advantage it can juice out of its fans.

Linebacker Matthew Judon called the Ravens’ Week 17 win one of the loudest environments he’d played in.

“I definitely enjoyed it, every second,” Judon said, “and hopefully they can come back out again, make it back out for this game and make it louder.”

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