Who knew a raven could fly faster than a jet?
The Week 15 edition of Thursday Night Football, airing live on FOX, Amazon Prime and NFL Network at 8:20 p.m. ET, will feature a first-time battle between a pair of 2018 draft mates.
New York Jets quarterback Sam Darnold was selected 29 picks before Baltimore Ravens signal-caller Lamar Jackson finally heard his name called at the end of the first round. The gap in their career paths, to this point, is starting to greatly resemble the one that separated them on draft night almost two years ago.
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After playing well in the season opener, Darnold had his Year 2 briefly interrupted by an illness that sidelined him for three straight. He made a triumphant return in Week 6 and, while his team’s success (and health) has fluctuated, Darnold has shown solid improvement and consistency in the weeks since.
Jackson, on other hand, has done everything and then some while somehow managing to do even more en route to leading Baltimore to a historic season and putting himself at the front of the line of MVP candidates.
The hope of securing a playoff berth will be a dream once again deferred until 2020 for the Jets, but the Ravens, who are guaranteed a seat at the playoff table, have a chance to do something never before done in franchise history should they win Thursday night.
Darnold and Jackson are on complete opposite ends of the spectrum through their second seasons but both are still young players with plenty to prove. That, combined with the AFC Playoff implications, alone makes this one a contest worth tuning in for.
Here are four things to watch for when the Ravens put their nine-game win streak on the line against the Jets on TNF:
What will Sam Darnold be seeing against the Ravens?
If the Patriots had him seeing ghosts, what will Sam Darnold be subjected to against this Ravens defense?
Jokes aside, when Darnold took on New England in Week 7, that was only his second game back from being sidelined, and his third game of the season. Let’s just say the guy Baltimore will face on "TNF" has had his eyes checked and it has led to better results and fewer soundbites.
In the weeks since New England, Darnold has completed 63.6 percent of his passes for 1,825 yards, 12 touchdowns and six interceptions while leading NY to a 4-3 record. Darnold’s best buds in that span have been tight end Ryan Griffin and receiver Robby Anderson, who have accounted for 670 yards and seven TDs in that span. An encouraging sign that Darnold is seeing the field well and finding two of his top guys but, at the same, it’s a reminder of what they will miss with Griffin (ankle) ruled out this week.
The absence of Griffin could prove costly to the Jets’ game plan against a Ravens front-line that, similar to the Pats, loves to blitz. According to Next Gen Stats, Baltimore has blitzed at a league-best rate of 49.5-percent while holding QBs to the lowest passer rating (61.1) and forcing the most INTs (8).
There’s no question that Darnold could be in for a rough night like many of signal-callers before him, but his performance against the blitz in recent weeks suggests that coach Adam Gase can breathe a little easier when the Ravens send the house.
After struggling in Weeks 6-9, Darnold has reacted well to the blitz in Weeks 10-14. He has upped his completion percentage (43.9 to 63.2), as well as his yards per attempt from 3.7 to 7.8 and passer rating (22.5 to 104.7). He has also thrown zero picks over the past five games under pressure after previously throwing six.
It’ll be a challenge without being able to check down to Griffin or have him as a red-zone target, but Darnold’s fundamentals and improved vision should at least provide some type of aid against linebacker Matthew Judon and crew.
Ravens have placed big trust in Mark Ingram
Lamar Jackson has snagged just about every possible headline related to the Ravens’ superb offense, but Ingram is enjoying one of the best years of his career while simultaneously just enjoying life. Lest we forget, he also signed the second-largest running back contract last free agent period, only behind this article’s third point.
Ingram has ripped his way to 1,088 yards from scrimmage and 12 total touchdowns. Being that the Ravens are a power run-heavy offense, Ingram has smashed his way to a league-high 280 rush yards, 17 rushing first downs and 10 forced missed tackles on such schemes.
Ingram, along with Jackson, have lined up and knocked down all the vaunting fronts the league has had to offer, and they’ll get a chance to dismantle another against the Jets. Led by linebackers James Burgess and Neville Hewitt, New York has allowed 2.9 rush yards per attempt on power runs, which could deprive Ingram of his most successful scheme.
The Jets are allowing the second-fewest rush YPG (78.8) and the 14th-fewest rush scores (14). Handling Baltimore’s all-time rush attack will be no small potatoes, though, and Ingram figures again to be a dominant force behind a steady offensive line. Jackson should continue his MVP-level play, but Ingram’s impact will be much needed.
What will Jets get from post-flu Le’Veon Bell?
The 2019 offseason’s top-paid RB had an eventful go of it last week, none of which was related to the football field.
After being ruled out of Week 14 with the flu on Saturday, Le’Veon Bell took his talents to a New Jersey bowling alley where he had, in his words, a "career-high" afternoon. The response to Bell’s activities became the talk of the Jets press conference Tuesday, but now the focus has shifted back to how he’ll contribute in his sport of choice.
Bell has not being producing at the clip we’ve been accustomed to seeing in his first year in N.Y. His numbers are down across the board, and he just hasn’t looked sharp for most of the season. In fact, Bell’s 992 scrimmage yards and four TDs have been outmatched by Jackson’s ground output — 1,017 yards, seven TDs — alone, per NFL Research. And that’s pretty bad for a running back.
Playing well against the Ravens won’t undo everything, but it could put Bell back on track to being one of the better regarded running backs in the NFL like he was during his Steelers years. We’ll see on Thursday if he can outperform his "flu game" from a little less than a week ago.
Rare, historic stakes on the line for Baltimore
Jackson telling reporters last week he hurt his quad on a 61-yard TD pass sounds like a subtle flex, but it actually speaks volumes to the type of year Baltimore has had.
For years, the Ravens have been known as a defensive-minded group, but 2019 has been the year it has all come together in a major way with all three phases showing out in harmony. It’s been beautiful to watch and TNF will give Baltimore the opportunity to cement its regular-season legacy with a win.
In addition to Jackson being expected to pass Michael Vick (1,039) and set the new single-season record for most rush yards by a QB, the Ravens can position themselves to secure their first-ever No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs with a victory. They would just need the Patriots to lose to the Bengals and the Chiefs to either lose or tie against the Broncos this Sunday.
The Ravens could also clinch just a first-round bye with a win and a loss by either team.
In terms of the division, a victory would also give Baltimore the AFC North title, an outcome that would assure that they wouldn’t have to wait to see if the Steelers lose to or tie the Bills on Sunday Night Football.
With the top scoring offense and a top-5 scoring defense, Baltimore hopes to carry its momentum into the postseason and become the fourth team to make a Super Bowl — ’96 Packers, ’99 Rams, ’07 Patriots — after ranking in the top-5 in both categories. Toppling the Jets at home on Thursday night would push them one step closer to reaching that goal.
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