1. Can the Baltimore Ravens shut down the Jacksonville Jaguars right away?
As the Ravens (10-5) try to clinch the sixth and final playoff berth in the AFC today against the Jaguars (5-10) at M&T Bank Stadium, they’ll be looking to put Jacksonville away immediately. The Ravens don’t always start quickly, but it would behoove them to do so in this matchup against an old rival from the AFC Central days. In the Jaguars’ past two road defeats, they fell behind 10-0 against the Houston Texans in the first quarter and 20-3 by halftime against the Chicago Bears. Quarterback David Garrard seems to be affected in lopsided games, throwing nine of his 11 interceptions when trailing on the scoreboard. The Ravens have already come out and said that they want to take away the Jaguars’ hopes of playing spoiler by setting a tone at the beginning of the game. All the motivation exists for the Ravens to take care of business early and be able to rest key, injured veterans like wide receiver Derrick Mason for the majority of the contest. The Ravens could find themselves in the position of not needing to win to make the playoffs if the Buffalo Bills upset the New England Patriots during an earlier game. Even if the Patriots win, the Ravens are expected to at least try to win this game to enter the playoffs with some momentum.
2. Could this be rookie quarterback Joe Flacco’s breakout home game?
The Jaguars’ secondary looks vulnerable, having allowed 25 touchdown passes for the third-most in the NFL. Although Flacco is coming off an efficient, crisp game against the Dallas Cowboys, he hasn’t had a multiple touchdown game since dominating the Cincinnati Bengals three games ago. For the Ravens’ offense to click, they’ll need Flacco to hit stride as they try to get into the postseason tournament. Someone besides Mason will need to step forward and be counted on for Flacco to have some viable options downfield.
3. Can the Ravens run the football?
The Ravens sport the second-ranked rushing attack in the league and are led by 260-pound fullback-tailback Le’Ron McClain. And the Jaguars will counter with a stingy run defense that has held opponents to a 52.3 rushing yard average in their past three games. The Ravens have gone 1-3 this season when they have rushed for less than 113 yards. Jacksonville features big defensive tackles and active linebackers.
4. Will the Ravens be able to slow down Maurice Jones-Drew?
Jones-Drew is a shifty back capable of making people miss in space. He leads NFL running backs with 61 receptions for 555 receiving yards. With Fred Taylor out for the season, Jones-Drew has emerged as the Jaguars’ most prolific option to touch the football. The Ravens have traditionally had issues against multi-dimensional backs.
5. Can the Ravens hold onto the ball?
A couple of nearly lost fumbles could have proved costly against the Cowboys. Traditionally, the Ravens need ball security to win. Since the 2000 season, the Ravens have gone 60-3 when winning the turnover battle. Kickoff returner Yamon Figurs is on thin ice after almost costing the Ravens the game against Dallas at Texas Stadium.
INSIDE SLANT: KEY MATCHUPS
Ravens MLB Ray Lewis vs. Jaguars RB Maurice Jones-Drew
One week after allowing 90 rushing yards to Dallas Cowboys rookie running back Tashard Choice, the Ravens’ defense will be tested, if his gimpy knee cooperates, by Jones-Drew. He’s a stocky, powerful back with pass-catching skills and shifty moves in the open field. The Ravens haven’t allowed an opposing runner to eclipse 100 yards since the Kansas City Chiefs’ Larry Johnson in December of 2006. They haven’t allowed an opposing runner to gain 100 yards against them at home since the Houston Texans’ Domanick Davis in 2005. During that span of 30 consecutive home games without allowing an opposing runner to hit the century mark, the Ravens have shut down the likes of LaDainian Tomlinson, Curtis Martin, Tiki Barber, Edgerrin Jmaes, Brian Westbrook, Willie Parker and Jamal Lewis. Lewis spearheads that effort with his instinctive ability to diagnose plays and intimidate offenses with his crushing tackles.
Ravens WR Derrick Mason vs. Jaguars CB Drayton Florence
Despite a painful dislocated left shoulder, Mason remains the Ravens’ top receiving threat. He aggravated the shoulder against the Dallas Cowboys, but has caught 74 passes for 960 yards and five touchdowns this season. In 15 career games against Jacksonville, he has caught 37 passes for 458 yards and four touchdowns. At home, though, Mason has averaged just 35.7 receiving yards this season with one touchdown. There’s a chance that he could be rested if the New England Patriots lose to the Buffalo Bills in an early game that would automatically send Baltimore to the playoffs. Mason is definitely banged-up and could use a week off. He insists he wants to play and will have his hands full against Florence, an athletic, strong cornerback that hasn’t met expectations as an expensive free agent acquisition.
THREE DOWNS WITH …
Baltimore Ravens rookie quarterback Joe Flacco
1. On watching Derrick Mason playing hurt: “It obviously means a lot. To see a guy play like that who’s been playing with it ever since Houston, and, the shoulder at least, he’s probably had all kinds of other things wrong with him the rest of the season, but he’s been playing hurt all year. And for him to come out and play like he has is incredible.
"I think we all see what he’s doing, and we understand how great it is, and what he means to this team. He doesn’t ask anything extra. He doesn’t try to show it. He doesn’t try to let anybody know. He just comes out and does his job, and that’s all he wants to do, is go out and do his job. He doesn’t care if anybody recognizes it or not.”
2. On the recognition he’s received from Ray Lewis: “Ray has been a great player in this league for a long time now, so anytime he comes up and gives you confi dence to go out and play, and he lets you know that he has confidence in you, it means a lot. Ray is like that. He does it all the time with a bunch of guys. It meant a lot to me at the time, and he’s helped me out a lot throughout this year.”
3. On Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan: "Yeah, he’s been doing a great job down there. He’s had a great year, and the Atlanta Falcons have had a great year, so it’s pretty crazy to see two rookie quarterbacks having the types of seasons that our teams are having. I think that’s the most important thing. He’s gotten his team into the playoffs, they’ve gotten themselves into the playoffs as a team, and we’re trying to do the same.
"It’s been an exciting season. It just proves that as long as you go out there and you believe in yourself, and your team believes in everybody, then you can go out and win games. I’m sure you guys will compare us for the rest of our careers. We’re obviously in the same draft class and started from Day One. But I’m not going to pay too much attention to that. We’ll see how it works out.
THREE DOWNS WITH …
Jacksonville Jaguars quarter back David Garrard
1. On Fred Taylor saying this was the worse team he’s played on: "Fred was just speaking his mind and speaking what he felt in his heart. It is tough because we have a great collection of guys here, and for us to not be able to put enough wins together this year to get us into the postseason, you really could feel where he was coming from. It doesn’t make you feel any better that he did say that statement, but I think we all kind of understand what he’s talking about. We need to do a better job of playing more together as a team, and hopefully, that can get us in the right frame of mind and then make us get back on track to where we should be.”
2. On if he feels the team is snake-bit: "Yeah, honestly. It really just feels like we didn’t have much go our way this year. It’s just been tough. You can say snake-bitten or just bad luck or whatever it is. Maybe that’s just the cards we were dealt. So, it is what it is, but we should have been better at overcoming all the obstacles and we just weren’t.”
3. On his battle with Crohn’s disease: "It definitely was a tough battle early on. Four years ago when I was diagnosed with it, I lost about 40 pounds and the doctors had to go in and do surgery and took a foot of my intestines out. Then I got on medicine after that, and thankfully, the Lord has kept me symptoms free.
"The medicine has done a great job. So, I’ve been able to pretty much go out and continue to live my life healthy and with no concerns right now. I’m very thankful for that and thankful that I’m able to continue to play this game. I know a lot of kids and a lot of adults out there are not able to live their lives as freely, so hopefully I can just give them a little bit of inspiration so they can continue to fight and continue to know that there’s going to be a brighter day.”
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.