Five Ravens questions for the 2023 stretch run

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With the 9-3 Ravens returning to Owings Mills after their bye week and aiming to win their first AFC North championship since 2019, below are five questions ahead of the final five games of the 2023 regular season:

1. Will the Ravens secure the No. 1 seed in the AFC?

Though no longer occupying the top spot after Miami blew out Washington on Sunday, the bye week was still fruitful for Baltimore’s home-field advantage hopes with both Kansas City and Jacksonville falling to 8-4. With a Week 17 showdown with the Dolphins on the calendar, John Harbaugh’s team technically controls its path to securing the top spot in the conference for the first time since 2019, but how realistic is winning out with a schedule that includes four opponents currently occupying playoff spots and is widely regarded as the NFL’s most difficult? 

Even Sunday’s home tilt with the playoff-hopeful Los Angeles Rams looks more challenging than it did a few weeks ago, and the competition only gets tougher from there with back-to-back prime-time road games against the Jaguars and San Francisco. If Baltimore manages to prevail in those three contests as well as the aforementioned tilt with Miami, Week 18 brings a clash with rival Pittsburgh, who has won six of the last seven meetings. 

In other words, if the Ravens are enjoying a first-round bye come the second week of January, they certainly will have earned it. 

2. Where will Lamar Jackson finish in the MVP race?

Unlike his historic 2019 campaign in which he led the NFL with 36 touchdown passes and ranked sixth in rushing (1,206 yards) to be voted the unanimous league MVP, Jackson doesn’t have a statistical profile that wows you as he’s currently tied for 19th in touchdown passes (13) and 29th in rushing yards (574) through Week 13. However, this year’s MVP race remains wide open and the Ravens are a serious contender for the AFC’s top spot, which should help his case as he’s on pace for career highs with 7.84 yards per pass attempt and a 68.3% completion percentage. For what it’s worth, Jackson currently ranks seventh in passer rating (98.4), seventh in Pro Football Focus quarterback grading, and 13th in ESPN’s QBR metric

Since his sensational showing in the Week 7 blowout of Detroit, Jackson’s play has been more solid than spectacular, so he’ll definitely need at least a couple more highlight performances the rest of the way to have a real chance to win his second MVP award. Of course, the Ravens would settle for Jackson simply staying healthy and upright after the last two Decembers. 

3. How special will the Baltimore defense be? 

The 2000 defense remains the gold standard in Ravens lore, but Mike Macdonald’s group has a chance to go down as one of the very best in franchise history and at least the top defensive unit since the days of Ray Lewis and Ed Reed. Baltimore comes off the bye week leading the league in points allowed, sacks, yards per play, and defensive DVOA. In fact, the 4.22 yards per play allowed would be the second-best mark in Ravens history behind only the 1999 defense (4.06). 

The final stretch won’t be easy with San Francisco and Miami sporting arguably the two best offenses in the NFL and the Rams and Jaguars also having firepower, but the Ravens defense has played at an elite level for all but a few quarters this season despite dealing with multi-week absences to three-time Pro Bowl cornerback Marlon Humphrey and free safety Marcus Williams.

As for awards and accolades, no one appears likely to be in the NFL Defensive Player of the Year mix, but such an impressive ensemble cast should still be well represented at the Pro Bowl. Matching the 2006 Ravens’ franchise-record six defensive selections — Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Terrell Suggs, Chris McAlister, Adalius Thomas, and Bart Scott — will be very tough, but Roquan Smith, Justin Madubuike, and Kyle Hamilton are very deserving of nods and Jadeveon Clowney, Brandon Stephens, Patrick Queen, and Geno Stone should at least garner consideration. 

Baltimore is also on pace to break the franchise single-season record for sacks (60) set in 2006 and could have multiple players reach double-digit sacks for the first time since Suggs and Elvis Dumervil did it in 2014.

4. What will the running back position look like the rest of the way? 

The Ravens lost J.K. Dobbins in Week 1, didn’t acquire a Pro Bowl talent such as Derrick Henry at the trade deadline, and no longer have Greg Roman orchestrating the ground attack, but they enter Week 14 leading the NFL in rushing yards and enjoying a historic level of efficiency, according to one notable metric. Despite offensive coordinator Todd Monken not calling as many designed quarterback runs as his predecessor, Jackson’s legs remain the centripetal force for the ground game. 

Veteran Gus Edwards leads the team in rushing yards and touchdowns, but the speedy Keaton Mitchell has been a home-run hitter with a 9.3 yards per carry average over the last four games. The undrafted rookie led all Baltimore backs in carries and snaps in Week 12, so you wonder if that marked a changing of the guard for the lead back role down the stretch. That mix of thunder and lightning could be very fun to watch and even more difficult to defend, especially with Jackson remaining a threat to take off at any point.

5. Can the passing game find a higher level of consistency? 

If there’s one area that makes you take some pause about the Ravens’ Super Bowl aspirations, it remains the passing game, which enters Week 14 ranked 14th in DVOA and 15th in expected points added per dropback. To be fair, the air attack has looked very good at times and ranks fifth in the NFL in yards per attempt, but the loss of three-time Pro Bowl tight end Mark Andrews until at least the postseason puts more strain on Jackson and an operation that struggled against a poor Chargers defense in Week 12. There’s just no replacing that dynamic off-script chemistry that Jackson and Andrews enjoy.

The Ravens need starting offensive tackles Ronnie Stanley — whose struggles have been no secret — and Morgan Moses to hold up physically down the stretch, and the wide receiver group led by first-round rookie Zay Flowers and veteran Odell Beckham Jr. will need to step up with Andrews sidelined indefinitely. Leading Baltimore in both catches and receiving yards, Flowers playing a more prominent and sophisticated role in the intermediate-to-deep passing game could be the key for this air attack getting where it needs to be to make a deep postseason run. 

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