Week 16’s biggest takeaway
Lamar Jackson-led second-half surge has Ravens poised for a playoff run
Some of the most difficult shoes to fill in the NFL are those of veteran Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco, who has taken the Ravens to the playoffs in six of his first 11 seasons and led the team to a 2012-2013 Super Bowl victory over the San Francisco 49ers.
After missing the playoffs the past four seasons, however, Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome was ready to usher in a new quarterback era in Baltimore at the 2018 NFL Draft.
During the draft, Newsome traded up to select former Louisville star and Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson with the 32nd overall pick in a move that was questioned by many members of the media due to Jackson's reliance on running and his inexperience in a pro-style attack.
The original game plan for Jackson’s rookie season was to play him in a few rushing packages that utilise his speed – which has drawn comparisons to former mobile quarterback Michael Vick’s – each match, but mostly to let him learn and train behind Flacco.
Nine weeks into the season, the Ravens were 4-5, riding the league’s best defence to victories but sporting one of American football’s most anaemic attacks.
Coming off a loss to division rival Steelers in which Flacco injured his right hip, Jackson was chosen as the Baltimore starter in a must-win week 10 match against the Bengals.
Jackson finished the match 13 of 19 passing for 150 yards and an interception, but his legs kept the Bengals defence off balance all afternoon. The rookie quarterback finished with 119 yards rushing on 27 carries.
Jackson’s electrifying play continued in week 11 against the Raiders in a match the Ravens won 34-17 and was followed up by a 26-16 victory in Atlanta against the Falcons.
Through three career starts, Jackson was 3-0 and the Ravens had moved to 7-5 on the year, fully entrenched in the AFC playoff picture after looking like a potential castoff during the first half of the season.
Flacco remained injured, watching as the future of the Ravens continued to win until a hard-fought 27-24 loss stopped his streak against the Chiefs in Kansas City.
When week 15 arrived, Flacco was deemed healthy enough to play, but coach Jim Harbaugh elected to stick with his rookie quarterback, who was 3-1 in his young career and had provided a much-needed spark on and off the field for the team.
The gamble paid off, as Jackson and the stout defence led the team to victory in week 15 over the Buccaneers and again in week 16 against the LA Chargers.
While passing statistics indicate Jackson has been one of the worst traditional quarterbacks in the league this season, his ability to extend plays and gain first downs with his legs has made this once anaemic attack unpredictable and at times dynamic.
From week one through week 10 with Flacco, the Ravens had only 65 rushing first downs, but from weeks 11 to 16 with Jackson, the Ravens have 72 rushing first downs, good for first in the league during the stretch.
The second-highest total of rushing first downs during that span is 45, an alarming disparity proving Jackson’s improvisational running skills carry substantial statistical weight when plays break down, as he can scramble for a first down better than anyone else in the NFL.
Having won five of the last six matches with Jackson, the Ravens now sit in the driver’s seat of the AFC North at 9-6. The Steelers have gone 2-4 over that stretch and face elimination if the Ravens are able to defeat the Browns at home next Sunday.
If the Ravens win next week, it will be their first AFC North championship since 2012, and behind a hot Jackson and the league’s best defence, they could be a dark horse Super Bowl favourite come AFC playoff time.
Play of the weekend
Sheldon Rankins forces a JuJu Smith-Schuster fumble in match’s last minute to secure a Saints victory
Trailing the Saints 28 -31 in the final minute of the fourth quarter, Big Ben Roethlisberger completed a short pass to JuJu Smith-Schuster to bring the team within 10 yards of field goal range. On the next play, Roethlisberger completed a second short pass to Smith-Schuster, who was stripped by New Orleans defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins.
The fumble was recovered by the Saints and turned out to be a match-winner for New Orleans and potentially a season-ender for Pittsburgh, who surrendered its position atop the AFC North with the loss.
Game of the weekend
Eagles defeat Texans 32-30
After nearly blowing a 29-16 fourth-quarter lead, Eagles quarterback Nick Foles led his team down the field for an improbable match-winning drive to save Philadelphia's season.
A 30-yard Deshaun Watson touchdown pass gave Houston the 30-29 lead with two minutes to play, but Foles and Philadelphia converted on multiple third downs on the match's final drive as a last-second field goal by Eagles kicker Jake Elliott handed the Texans their fifth loss of the season.
The victory moved the Eagles to 8-7, making Philadelphia and Minnesota the last two NFC teams competing for the conference’s final Wild Card playoff spot. The Eagles need a win over the Redskins next week and a Vikings loss to the Bears to clinch the NFC’s second Wild Card spot.
Next week’s key AFC match-ups and playoff scenarios
Ravens vs Browns, Colts at Titans, Steelers vs Bengals
The winner of the Colts (9-6) at Titans (9-6) match-up will secure the second AFC Wild Card spot. It is as simple as that – the winner is in, the loser is out.
If the Steelers (8-6-1) defeat the Bengals (6-9) in week 17, the Ravens (9-6) will need a victory against Cleveland (7-7-1) to capture the AFC North title. If both the Ravens and the Steelers win their respective matches, the Ravens will advance to the playoffs as division champions. If both teams lose, the Ravens will advance.
Next week’s key NFC match-ups and playoff scenarios
Eagles at Redskins, Vikings vs Bears
If the Vikings (8-6-1) win or tie, they are in. Likewise, if the Eagles (8-7) lose, the Vikings are in. The only way for the Eagles to supplant the Vikings as the NFC’s final Wild Card team is for the Eagles to win against the Redskins (7-8) and the Vikings to lose to the Bears (11-4) in week 17.
Teams eliminated from playoff contention in week 16
NFC: Redskins, Panthers
AFC: Dolphins, Browns
Teams that have clinched a playoff berth
NFC: Saints, Rams, Bears, Cowboys, Seahawks
AFC: Chiefs, Chargers, Patriots, Texans
Teams still in the hunt
NFC: Eagles, Vikings,
AFC: Colts, Titans, Ravens, Steelers