Twelve Ravens Thoughts (and a prediction) ahead of Week 18 meeting with Pittsburgh

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With the No. 1 seed Ravens having won six in a row and concluding the regular season by hosting playoff-hopeful Pittsburgh on Saturday,  I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. Sitting Lamar Jackson was a no-brainer as I’ll take my chances with possible rust over risking him getting injured in a meaningless game and ruining Super Bowl aspirations. That said, Jackson has played in only two of the last seven Ravens-Steelers games, which really explains why this rivalry has waned.

2. Meanwhile, Mason Rudolph has given Pittsburgh a late-season spark and will be making his first start against the Ravens since Week 5 of 2019, which was the game in which he was knocked unconscious on a hit from Earl Thomas. Incredibly, that was also Jackson’s last victory against the Steelers. 

3. John Harbaugh can only rest so many players with a game-day roster of 48, and it doesn’t help that several reserves are currently dealing with injuries too. We’ll see backups and young players rotating into the game more than usual, but plenty of starters are still going to see action. 

4. Of the seven Ravens to make the Pro Bowl, Patrick Queen is the best story after Eric DeCosta declined his fifth-year option and drafted his potential replacement. Admittedly unhappy over those developments, Queen handled himself admirably and is now going to get paid extremely well after a career year. 

5. The competition was too stiff for the Pro Bowl, but Jadeveon Clowney is having one of the finest seasons of his career and is going to play in all 17 games, which was the first goal he stated upon arriving in Owings Mills in August. What an addition he’s been. 

6. Though still on the mend and unlikely to play in the finale, Kyle Hamilton being voted a Pro Bowl starter in his second season put him in rare company. The 22-year-old joined Todd Heap — who was also born on March 16 — as the youngest Raven to make a Pro Bowl. 

7. My first reaction to the Ravens drafting Tyler Linderbaum was that he’ll need to be a Pro Bowl center to justify using a first-round pick at that position after years of not using many resources there. Linderbaum has been as good as advertised and is only getting better. 

8. “Snub” is one of the most overused terms pertaining to sports-related honors, but I feel for Kevin Zeitler, who had another excellent campaign without receiving a Pro Bowl nod. Only three guards in the conference are picked, but he should have at least a couple selections over his 12 seasons.

9. Pro Bowl defensive tackle Justin Madubuike may not see his typical number of snaps on Saturday, but he needs one sack to move into a tie with Terrell Suggs for the fourth most in a season in franchise history. Two would tie him with Peter Boulware for second (15). 

10. Given Queen’s pending free agency and the reality that he and Roquan Smith are both banged up, Trenton Simpson could top the list of young players I’m most looking forward to watching on Saturday. The third-round rookie has played just 20 defensive snaps all year.

11. Harbaugh has already said Tyler Huntley will start at quarterback with Josh Johnson backing him up, but I’d be tempted to take a second-half look at Malik Cunningham, especially if you have serious thoughts of him being Jackson’s primary backup in 2024. Huntley and Johnson are pending free agents. 

12. As was the case entering the final week of the 2019 regular season, the Steelers have a shot to qualify for the playoffs. Regardless of the big-picture insignificance, the Ravens players who are competing in this one would love nothing more than to send Pittsburgh home with a loss. 

Prediction: Beyond holding their breath for three hours in hopes of avoiding any notable injuries, the interest for this one from the Ravens’ perspective just doesn’t go very far beyond the wintry weather in the forecast. That said, I suspect observers will be surprised to see how many starters still play in this one, which would fall in line with what we saw in Week 18 last year as well as that 2019 regular-season finale. The Steelers have played better the last two weeks and won’t have to deal with the red-hot Jackson, but a very deep Baltimore defense will still be too much for Rudolph and the Pittsburgh offense to handle. Little about this rivalry has made sense in recent years, so I’ll pick the Ravens to prevail in a 23-16 final despite Jackson and other prominent players sitting out. 

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