As the Baltimore Ravens rolled out the August bench for Sunday’s mostly meaningless loss in Cincinnati, you had to tell your eyes to deceive you.
What you were seeing – Anthony Brown throwing to James Proche and Isaiah Likely and handing off to Kenyan Drake – will not be what the Ravens are hoping to offer this Sunday night at 8:15 p.m. when the season is on the line and the game against the Bengals will count.
Of course, the defense that was attempting to defend the real Joe Burrow and most elements of the real offensive attack for the defending AFC champions was mostly real. And it was real enough to imagine the Ravens hanging around long enough to give you a reason to watch this weekend.
It’s the playoffs. Anything can happen.
After doing bus trips and road trips for a quarter of a century to playoff games all over the country and taking tens of thousands of our citizens along, I really wondered if there’s anyone who wants to get on the bus to Cincinnati this weekend believing the Ravens will still be in the tournament at midnight on Sunday night?
Based on the opening line as 6 ½ point underdogs, Las Vegas certainly thinks Lamar Jackson is going to play – and lose – against the Bengals.
Of course, this is the (more than) $200 million (guaranteed) question that will be asked all week: Will Lamar Jackson be on the field in a Baltimore Ravens jersey ready to play a January playoff game against the best team in the AFC North by Sunday night? No matter what his salary is – or will be – or who will be playing at wide receiver or running the football.
Is No. 8 ready to win a playoff game for his team?
We’re pretty sure the Ravens haven’t been secretly holding Lamar Jackson back since before Christmas. This episode of doubt and John Harbaugh being speechless at the podium every week was never part of the plan. And whatever “business of football” drama is quietly unfolding in their building – Lamar’s health, Lamar’s contract, Lamar’s recovery, Lamar’s swelling, Lamar’s motivation – the only thing that matters is winning this week for all of them to quell the unfolding narrative of a failed season and an oft-injured but generational superstar who might want out of Baltimore.
Sunday in Cincinnati was tough to watch for anyone. It lacked relevance. It lacked drama. It lacked a legitimate effort by the organization to win. It stands as judgment free, like a N/A on a report card. If Anthony Brown or a less-than-healthy Tyler Huntley is the best the Ravens can offer at quarterback this Sunday night, it’s going to be a long offseason around here.
Of course, barring a Super Bowl parade, that’s pretty much expected to be the case anyway. We’re all expecting a kind of turmoil that is mostly unusual for this franchise. I’m trying to think of the last person – other than Marquise “Hollywood” Brown – who walked upstairs to the offices of Ozzie Newsome or Eric DeCosta and said they didn’t want to play for the Baltimore Ravens. And then I saw former No. 1 draft pick Hayden Hurst last week and again this week.
Most of us have been watching the Ravens and the NFL long enough to know that this ongoing drama and uncertainty is a less-than-ideal and almost “outlier” circumstance for the franchise in many ways. And for the fans, there are lots of sides to take on the issue of guaranteeing a quarterback talent like Lamar Jackson the future keys to the franchise when he hasn’t been able to get on the field after Thanksgiving the past two seasons because he runs into linebackers the first dozen weeks of the season while the team stacks up wins. Linebackers like his teammate Roquan Smith, whom the Ravens just gave $100 million to earlier this week.
Make no mistake about it, the franchise won its REAL Super Bowl last week in Annapolis. There will be no bigger victory for Steve Bisciotti than when the state gave him $600 million – basically a rebate on every dollar he paid for the franchise – just to keep his business in Baltimore, Maryland. And keeping the team here was never in question. What is in question is what he’ll do with all of that free taxpayer money to enhance the “stadium experience” and improve profitability from those emerging empty seats amidst a time of seemingly franchise prosperity. Word is the press box will be the first thing blown up for new sky boxes.
The Baltimore Ravens are staying in Baltimore!
Now, keeping the Ravens season alive this week and finding a way to win a knockout game in Cincinnati is much more in doubt.
I suppose the Ravens could go to Cincinnati and have everything go perfectly fine. Or maybe Joe Burrow wakes up sore this week from trying to brace himself from a sack late in Sunday’s game. But barring some dramatic Willis Reed-style, off-the-bench and into the game scoring 31 points again this weekend from Lamar Jackson after putting on the purple cape and jumping out of the phone booth in Northern Kentucky, it’s hard to fathom the Bengals not showing up ready to play.
And even if Jackson shows up physically sound ready to run and throw, who other than Mark Andrews is going to catch it? The Ravens shuffle at wide receiver has once again been nothing short of remarkable, right down to when Sammy Watkins was stripped of a ball after making a pretty nice play in his second stint in Baltimore.
But Sunday’s warmup was trash. All of it.
And none of the turmoil around Lamar and his injury and the timeline means much of anything for this week except that we’re wondering whether the Ravens as a franchise have any heart of a champion after watching this past two months of humbling, sometimes bumbling football that has put them on the road this weekend a rightfully large underdog and deep long shot in a stacked conference to be playing football in Glendale next month at Super Bowl LVII.
But, this is the way Coach HardBall likes it. Or at least the way it always turns out with the Ravens playing road football in January after the franchise tries to sell playoff ducats as an inducement to buy my old PSLs in Section 513.
“We’re underdogs. No one is giving us a chance! No one believes in us!”
This is an easy sell in his locker room. So is revenge for the ass kicking they took playing backups on Sunday in Cincinnati.
This is a playoff game and needs no other narrative. It defines the season.
This week it’s all fresh again and the mystery of Lamar Jackson will continue to unfold with the season on the brink.
And then there’s the purple elephant in the room in the infinity 8 and whether Lamar Jackson will put on a cape and lead the franchise and the city to that Super Bowl that he wanted us to believe in from back on draft night in 2018.
What a crazy, pivotal week in Owings Mills!
And if they win, they get to go see Patrick Mahomes in Kansas City next week.
There have been lots of questions. This week, we’ll get answers and a report card on the franchise. Beyond the wheel barrel of money they just gave Roquan Smith, which was a helluva tell about how much they love him.
It’s judgment day.
For Lamar Jackson. For John Harbaugh. For Eric DeCosta. For the vibes of the city and the emotions of a fading fan base. The Ravens will go on the road. I’m not sensing busloads of folks heading to Cincinnati to witness a game that might not even feature the real Lamar Jackson.
But those loyal fans are the ones the franchise should be celebrating this week. Those who are willing to ride back through the mountains of West Virginia on Monday morning – win or lose.
And they’re probably going to lose.
Soon, we’ll go from talking about Lamar’s knee to his mo-knee.
And even more so if he shows up in Cincinnati on Sunday night and somehow wins a playoff game.
Legends are made in January.
But you have to show up and play and win.