It all comes down to this. Assuming that the Buffalo Bills are unable to knock off the New England Patriots in the early game (a fairly safe assumption given that the Bills have not beaten the Pats since the first game of the ’03 season), the Ravens, although already in double-digit wins, will need one more victory to get into the post season. Their opponent, the Jacksonville Jaguars, are having just as surprising of a 2008 season as the Ravens, albeit in an opposite sense. The Jags, after seeing their 2007 campaign end in New England in the divisional round, seemed poised to take the next step this year. Injuries and inconsistent play have derailed them though, and they have stumbled to the basement of the AFC South. They are 0-3 against the AFC North this year as well (yes, they actually lost to the Bengals). Quaterback David Garrard, who threw only 3 interceptions and was sacked just 21 times in 2007, has went down 41 times so far this year, and has thrown the ball to the wrong team on 11 occasions. Their two-headed backfield of Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew is down to one, with Taylor having been placed on IR several weeks ago. Jones-Drew is a bit banged up as well, but is expected to play. The Jags leading receiever, Matt Jones, is serving an NFL-imposed suspension for the final 3 games of the season. Good news for the Ravens, as both Samari Rolle and Fabian Washington are nursing minor injuries this week.
After seeing the top defenses of the Redskins, Steelers, and Cowboys in recent weeks, the Jags’ 12th-ranked unit could look like a pop-warner squad to Joe Flacco. Not that they are a pushover, but Jacksonville does not feature the likes of Troy Polamalu, James Harrison, or DeMarcus Ware. They have racked up only 13 interceptions and 26 sacks so far this season. After being manhandled for 5 sacks in the first half in Dallas, the Ravens O-line stepped it up and kept Joe Flacco upright for the entire 2nd half. As for their ground defense, the Jaguars held Adrian Peterson to just 80 yards in Week 12, but allowed the Texans’ Steve Slaton to gash them for 130 just a week later. The Ravens should be able to wear them down just as they have done to teams all year. Ray Rice has been back at practice, and hopefully Willis McGahee’s 77-yard TD run in Big D will give him the confidence boost he so desperately needed to regain his 2007 form.
Joe Flacco gets one last shot to have a good game at M&T Bank Stadium, before taking his act (The Joe Flacco Show) on the road for the playoffs. Joe Cool has continued to struggle at home, but perhaps this 19th-ranked Jags pass defense is just what he needs to regain his comfort zone. Helping keep him comfortable will be Derrick “Superman” Mason, he of the one good wing. Mason’s performance in Dallas will go down in Ravens lore for the ages. Unless Buffalo pulls the upset and makes this game meaningless for the Ravens, bet your last dollar that Mason will again be playing through the pain. The Jags’ weak pass-rush should also allow Todd Heap to get himself back into the passing game, instead of being forced to hang in and block all game again.
Jacksonville’s return game, like that of the Ravens, is sub-par – neither team has scored a return TD this season. Jim Leonhard has given the Ravens a big boost over the ineffective Yamon Figurs in punt returns, averaging over double per return (12.2 to 6.0). Unfortunately, Figurs remains the Ravens best option on kickoffs, at least until that shin bruise of Ray Rice heals completely. The Ravens have missed Rice catching passes out of the backfield, and can’t risk having him reinjured returning kicks.
Now, it isn’t impossible, of course, that the Bills upset New England. It’s a division game, Buffalo would love to end New England’s season, the Bills already potentially spoiled the post season dreams of one team (Denver, last week), and yadda yadda yadda. We’ll be rooting like hell for them, but a Belicheck team losing a must-win Week 17 game just doesn’t seem all that feasible.
So, it will fall onto the Ravens to once again overcome the pressure. They owe the Jags one. The last time these teams met, in 2005 in JAX, the Ravens were stomped, 30-3. The 2008 Ravens, though, have thrived on beating up on lesser teams, having outscored teams with losing records by an average of 31-12 in going 6-0 in those games. Unless everything we know about this team comes crashing down at the worst possible time, Festivus will officially be upon us by Sunday night.
Ravens 28 Jaguars 10