Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson helped his team become the AFC’s No. 1 seed in the playoffs. But can he get them to the Super Bowl?
By Chris Murray
For the Philadelphia Sunday Sun and the Chris Murray Report
Owings Mills, Md.—For all the rave reviews and the talk of having revolutionized football that Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson has received during the 2019 regular-season, the big question for the former Louisville star could get answered this weekend.
Can he lead them to a Super Bowl?
Jackson, the odds-on favorite to be NFL’s Most Valuable Player, has a tough task ahead of him in the Ravens AFC Divisional Playoff matchup against a very physical Tennessee Titans squad looking to spring a huge upset Saturday at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore.
In a season where he’s been mobbed by children at a local mall, named an All-Pro and starred on just about every highlight reel on every sports media outlet from ESPN to YouTube, Jackson said he is focused on the single goal of a Super Bowl win.
“It’s cool, It’s cool … I’m just trying to work. I want a Super Bowl,” Jackson said. “All the accolades and stuff like that, I’ll cherish that, but I’m trying to chase something else right now. … I’ve been wanting a
Super Bowl since I was a kid. That’s why I play the game because I want to win.”
Throughout the season, Jackson has become the ultimate weapon as a duel-threat quarterback with record-setting numbers. In his first full season as a starter, he set an NFL record for rushing yards in a single season by a quarterback by gaining 1,206 yards, breaking a record held by former Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Michael Vick.
“The new era that we’re in now in the NFL, he knows his matchups,” said Ravens veteran safety Earl Thomas, who won a Super Bowl ring with the Seattle Seahawks in 2013. “He uses the big tight ends, throws where only they can catch the ball and we all know what he can do once he starts to run.”
When the season began, more than a few NFL experts wrote Jackson off as a “running quarterback”, but he’s changed the minds of many in that regard. Jackson passed for 3,127 yards, completed 66.1 percent, was third in the league in quarterback rating, and led the league with 36 touchdown passes.
“He’s good at everything, he was already so good at everything,” said tight end Mike Andrews, who caught 64 passes from Jackson for 852 yards and 10 touchdowns. “I think mentally the quarterback position is so hard and so tough. After a year of being in the system, seeing defenses in the NFL, he’s been able to learn and been able to grow mentally in the whole football mindset.”
Ravens head coach John Harbaugh said Jackson’s running ability and his knack for getting the ball in tight spaces is a big help the Ravens in the red zone.
“He can also extend the play, hold the ball, move if he has to and he’s really done well with that,” Harbaugh said.
Jackson’s teammates like wide receiver Willie Snead IV said Jackson is driven by a desire to win and will take all the necessary to get there like working with his receivers after practice and during the offseason prior to training camp.
“It’s all set on Lamar. He wants to be great because of his work ethic and as a competitor. He wants to be the best. He wants the best for us,” Snead IV said. “He wants to see us all eat. I’m on board for that.”
But the true worth of Jackson’s season will be having to do it under the spotlight of a single-elimination playoff run where every opposing coach, including Saturday’s opponent, has seen him on tape and is scrutinizing his every step, hoping to find some weakness in what he does to exploit throughout the course of the game.
As he approaches his second playoff game, Jackson says he’s more prepared than he was during last January’s Wild Card loss to the Los Angeles Chargers and he’s ready for anything the Titans throw at him.
“I’m not a rookie anymore, I’ve been around. I’ve seen everything that they can bring … And we’re going to see it,” Jackson said. “Can’t start too late. You have to attack fast. It doesn’t really matter what quarter is, first or second, you have to attack. You have to finish the game strong. You can’t just go into the game playing half-assed.”
During the team’s organized teams last spring, Jackson said Ravens defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale has been testing him in practice by throwing a number of blitzes and disguised coverages at him.
“(Martindale) used to disguise crazy blitzes during OTAs and stuff like that, and it just helped me a lot, knowing where guys would be and knowing the area of the field. I just have to get the ball out where my receiver can get it or no one can.”
Ravens backup quarterback Robert Griffin III said the Ravens coaching staff has done a good job of preparing Jackson for any kind of wrinkle the Titans or any other teams will throw at him during the course of the game.
“Whatever they play we can adjust to that in-game so we’re not sitting ducks like ‘they played man-to-man all season and now they’re playing zone, what are we gonna do?’ Griffin III said. “When you do put stuff on tape and teams do something to take that away, you can adjust to give them a new problem.
“I think that’s what we’ve done all year (with Jackson). We continue to give teams new problems with Lamar running, Lamar throwing, our receiver packages, our tight end packages, jet sweeps … we keep giving teams new problems. …We want to be the math that they can’t figure out.”
Titans head coach Mike Vrabel said he has been using backup quarterback and former starter Marcus Mariota simulating Jackson to prepare his defense. But that’s not enough to fully capture Jackson’s speed in-game conditions.
“Other than try to tie (Jackson’s) shoelaces together, not many people have had success,” Vrabel said with a little tongue and cheek during a phone interview with the Baltimore-area media. “We’ll have to prepare and try to get our players as ready as possible to defend not only him but (running Mark Ingram and Gus Edwards.”
If you want to see what happens, catch the game on Saturday night at 8pm on CBS-3.
By Chris Murray
For the Philadelphia Sunday Sun and the Chris Murray Report.
Despite being the number one seed with a 13-3 record, the Philadelphia Eagles are a two-point underdog to the sixth-seeded Atlanta Falcons in their NFC Divisional Playoff game on Saturday.
This perception, based mainly on the belief that next to no one believes that the team has a snowball’s chance in hell of winning with quarterback Nick Foles at the helm, has fans (and a few players) smarting a little.
The disrespect is real, and the Birds have had enough of it.
“It’s surprising … But we ain’t worried about underdog, overdog; none of the that,” Eagles defensive tackle Tim Jernigan. “It comes down to us versus them. You can’t shake it. You can’t look at it any other way.”
Added Eagles wide receiver Alshon Jeffery: “I’m done talking about it. I don’t care nothing about Vegas and underdogs.”
Despite their denials to the contrary, the Birds are motivated by the apparent disrespect.
“They can all pick them if they want to, but at the end of the day, we know what we got here,” said running back Jay Ajayi. “Our mindset is we all we got. We’re all we got, we’re all we need.”
The team’s protestations notwithstanding, the perception of the Birds as a shaky number one seed comes from the fact that Foles hasn’t inspired a lot of confidence.
Foles struggled against the Oakland Raiders in week 16, completing just 50 percent of passes and threw one interception. He also didn’t look sharp In an abbreviated performance against the Dallas Cowboys, going 4-of-11 for 39 yards and one interception.
But Eagles head coach Doug Pederson said he and the rest of the offense has confidence in Foles ability to lead them against a Falcons defense that was ranked ninth against the run and 12th against the pass.
Pederson wants Foles to be himself, he said.
“My message to Nick is: Listen, we have a great opportunity. Let’s go be Nick. Let’s go play. Let’s go execute the offense,” Pederson said at his press conference on Tuesday. “[My message] to the team is the same thing: We have a great opportunity. Back’s against the wall. Let’s come out swinging and see what happens.”
Pederson is hoping to find the Foles who completed 24-of-38 passes and threw four touchdown passes against the New York Giants in a week 15 win. Now if the Foles that threw 27 touchdown passes against four interceptions back in 2013, they really could make a strong run to the Super Bowl.
It’s not like the former Arizona star doesn’t have playoff experience. In the Eagles’ 26-24 loss to the New Orleans Saints back in 2013, Foles completed 69 percent of his passes and threw two touchdown passes and left the game with the lead before Saints quarterback Drew Brees drove his team to the game-winning field goal.
Meanwhile, Foles said having the last two weeks of practice has helped him to regain his focus and belief that he can lead this team to victory over Atlanta.
“I haven’t executed as well as I wanted to in the last couple of weeks,” Foles said. “Having this time to self-scout, go through practice and everything, you realize that you just go out there and play. Maybe I wasn’t do that as much in those games. It’s as simple as that. Sometimes, the hardest things are the simple things. Basically, get out of your own head and play the game you know how to play.”
What’s going to help Foles stay on his feet and have time to find receivers downfield is consistency in the running game. The Eagles might have an advantage with Ajayi. When Ajayi was with the Miami Dolphins back in week five, he rushed for 130 yards on 26 carries. He averaged five yards per carry.
The Eagles also have Pro Bowl offensive lineman in Brandon Brooks and right tackle Lane Johnson to open up holes for Ajayi, LeGarrette Blount and Corey Clement.
For the Birds to win this game, they have to establish a consistent running game against Falcons defense that’s going to have eight men in the box.
“We’re going to need our room (running backs) to produce. It’s been that way all year,” Ajayi said. “When we’re successful, the running back room is successful because we’re helping to keep the tempo of the game, keep the defense off the field, making big plays. That’s not going to change. All of us are going to be counted to make big plays.”
The Eagles and Falcons take the field at Lincoln Financial at 4:35 pm on Saturday.
By Chris Murray
For the Chris Murray Report and the Philadelphia Sunday Sun
When you look at the raw numbers for Sunday’s NFC Championship game, everything seems to come up roses for the Seattle Seahawks chances to get to Super Bowl XLVIII.
Over the last two years, the Seahawks are 16-1 at Century Link Field including two wins over the San Francisco 49ers—their opponents in Sunday’s NFC title tilt. They have the No. 1-ranked defense in the NFL overall — No. 1 in scoring defense and against the pass. On offense, they have quarterback Russell Wilson and a force at running back in Marshawn Lynch.
But I wouldn’t completely count the Niners out of this one.
I think the 49ers have a good shot of going up there and beating the Seahawks, even in that noisy cauldron of a stadium. It won’t be easy, but I think they can pull it off because of their weapons on offense and how they have been playing coming into this game.
The Niners three main receivers are better than any of Seattle’s wideouts. Since Michael Crabtree joined tight end Vernon Davis and Anquan Boldin back in week 11, quarterback Colin Kaepernick has completed 64 percent of his passes.
In the Niners win over the Green Bay Packers, it was Crabtree who came up huge with eight receptions for 127 yards. In the win over the Carolina Panthers, Boldin caught eight passes for 136 yards. Davis had a touchdown pass that put the 49ers ahead to stay late in the first half.
“It’s Boldin and [WR Michael Crabtree] Crab both. They’re doing a great job getting open. [Quinton’s [Patton] making plays, Vernon’s making plays, there is a lot of people getting open on our team,” Kaepernick said earlier this week.
If the 49ers can get running back Frank Gore going, it could be a long day for the Seahawks. The last time San Francisco and Seattle met on the Niners’ homefield, Gore gained 104 yards rushing on 17 carries including a big 51-yard run.
“I think the hardest part is because since he’s a smaller guy he gets real low, and he’s downhill. He runs downhill and behind his big tackles and guards,” said Seahawks strong safety Kam Chancellor.
“It’s just a matter of being gap sound because as a defense if you’re not gap sound good running backs like Frank Gore will find that hole. So we just have to be gap sound on defense and learn from the mistakes that we’ve had in the past.”
Perhaps the biggest reason that I can give the 49ers a chance to win is the struggles of the Seattle offense, especially the passing game. Over the last five games, the Seahawks have averaged just 144 yards in the passing game.
In last Sunday’s win over the New Orleans Saints, Wilson was 9-of-18 for just 103 yards. But the Seahawks say they’re not all that worried about their issues in the passing game.
“I’ve said numerous times that we’ve played some terrific teams,” said Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll. “They’ve done a nice job on us and we haven’t been able to take advantage of some of the opportunities that we have. But all in all, when we take care of the football and we run the ball really well and manage the game like we have been, that gives us a great chance to win.”
Meanwhile, Wilson said there’s nothing overly complicated other than he just has to put the ball in his receiver’s hands.
“I think the biggest thing is to be more accurate on a couple throws I normally make,” Wilson said. “That’s what it comes down to. It’s nothing I need to search deep down for or go study a whole bunch for. It’s just put the ball on the money right where you need to be.”
When you have Lynch in your backfield, Wilson may not need to do as much in the passing game. Lynch gained 140 yards on 28 carries in the win over the Saints including a game-clinching 31-yard touchdown run.
This game will no doubt be a physical game because both defenses are capable shutting the other team down. Seattle opened the playoffs last week by keeping the explosive Saints offense off the scoreboard until late in the game despite allowing over 400 yards of total offense. The Seahawks held highly-touted Saints tight end Jimmy Graham to just one catch.
In their battles against the 49ers in Seattle, the Seahawks defense have shutdown Kaepernick and the Niners’ offense. The last time San Francisco played at Century Link Field, the Seahawks intercepted the former Nevada star three times and sacked him three times.
“Just playing ourselves, playing discipline, sound football. If you’re playing man-to-man, you’ve got your man,” said outspoken Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman. “Guys just playing discipline, sound football and not allowing them to scramble. That’s on our front four and front seven. Scheming it up, making sure he stays in the pocket.”
Meanwhile, the 49ers had two interceptions of Panthers quarterback Cam Newton and sacked him five times while shutting down the Carolina running game.
The last time San Francisco saw Lynch they held him to under 100 yards on the ground. Niners linebacker Patrick Willis said his team has to focus on shutting down the Seattle offense whether it’s Lynch on the ground or Wilson running to buy time in the passing game.
“[Lynch] is just a tough guy to bring down. There’s no question about that,” Willis said. “Russell Wilson, he’s able to scramble and able to throw the ball as well. So, we just have to play a complete game.”
It’s hard to pick against the Seahawks in their house with that defense and Lynch on offense, but I think the 49ers receivers will be the difference in this one. Look for the Niners to spring the upset, 27-23.
By Chris Murray
For the Chris Murray Report
The Sunday games of this weekend’s NFL playoffs was a reminder that no matter how explosive your offense is during the regular season, the strength of your defense will ultimately determine how far you advance in the postseason.
Yes it’s that old cliché about defense winning championships, but in today’s games it was the defense that helped both the Baltimore Ravens and the New York Giants to clinch spots in next week’s conference championship games.
In Green Bay, the Packers (15-2) came into their NFC Divisional Playoff game with New York Giants (11-7) with the league’s highest scoring offense at 35 points per game. With quarterback Aaron Rogers, the league’s highest rated passer, under center this game was supposedly a mere formality on the road to defending their Super Bowl title.
But the Packers also have the league’s worst defense and Giants quarterback Eli Manning exploited it to the tune of 330 yards and three touchdowns on 21-of-33 passing. Perhaps the big back breaker came seconds before halftime when Manning hit Hakeem Nicks on a 37-yard touchdown pass to give the Giants a 20-10. Green Bay would come no closer than 10 points for the rest of the game. Nicks ran roughshod through the Packers secondary catching seven passes for 165 yards and two touchdowns.
On the defensive end, the Giants roughed up the Packers explosive offense by sacking Rogers four times and forcing four turnovers. It didn’t help that Green Bay receivers dropped numerous and if the Giants defense didn’t make the sack they forced Rogers to overthrow and under-throw his receivers.
“We just boosted it up a notch. We just came out here and played even harder and we just rose to another level,” said defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul. “Our cornerbacks and safeties did well and our defensive line did a great job. That’s all that really counts. Everybody played as one.”
Throughout the 2011 season, the Packers simply outscored their opponents while ranking at the bottom of the league statistics in total defense and passing defense. The saving grace for the defense was that it had the best league’s best takeaway/giveaway percentage.
However, it was the Giants defense that came up big against the Packers high-powered offense. They held Rogers to under 50 percent passing. They were the ones forcing the turnovers and they slowed down the Packers offense.
If there was an MVP in this game, it was the physical Giants defense that dictated the outcome as well as the Packers 32nd ranked defense’s inability to stop Manning and the New York offense.
Meanwhile in Baltimore, the defense coming up big is a familiar story.
The Ravens jumped out to a 17-3 thanks to a pair of turnovers that gave the offense a short field to score touchdowns in the first quarter.
After the first quarter, the Ravens offense scored just three points for the rest of the game and managed just 227 yards of total offense. The Texans offense, thanks to the running of Arian Foster who gained 95 of his 132 yards in the first half, cut the Ravens lead to 17-13 and seemed to be on the verge of taking control of the game.
But in the second half, the Ravens held the Texans scoreless, forced two turnovers including a drive-killing interception by Ed Reed. Foster was held to just 37 yards on the ground in the second half.
“Defensively for us to come out and pretty much pitch a shutout that’s our standard of football,” Lewis said after the game. “You really have to take your hat off to our team.”
For all the talk of high-powered offenses like the Saints and the Packers dominating the 2011 season, you still need a solid defense to ultimately win a Super Bowl. For all the points and yardage those two teams racked up during the regular season, they are out of the playoffs because their defense failed to stop the other team’s offense.
Baltimore proved today that even when your offense is in a deep freeze, a good defense will not only keep in the game, it can also help you win it.