The Baltimore Ravens have locked up the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoff bracket, so why play their starters in Week 18?
Coach John Harbaugh and company are pondering that question ahead of Saturday’s season finale against the visiting Pittsburgh Steelers, whose own playoff dreams will be on the line.
The Ravens (13-3) thrashed the Miami Dolphins 56-19 last Sunday for their sixth straight victory, clinching the AFC North and a first-round playoff bye in the process. Lamar Jackson threw more touchdown passes (five) than incompletions (three) as public support grew for the quarterback to win his second NFL Most Valuable Player award.
Harbaugh said Monday that the Ravens had yet to decide how much — if at all — to play Jackson and other starters in the regular-season finale. The coach said they’d know by Wednesday and would not “keep it a secret.”
One possible factor at play is the age-old “rest vs. rust” debate. When the Ravens secured a first-round bye in 2019, they held out starters against Pittsburgh in the regular-season finale, but after a long gulf between games, they came out flat in a divisional-round loss to Tennessee.
In Harbaugh’s view, there’s no comparison worth drawing.
“I remember the experience and the choices we made (in 2019), but the decisions we made, we made for certain reasons,” Harbaugh said. “We thought they were the right decisions. What impacted how in terms of us not playing our best football that day, it’s really hard to say what the cause and effect was.”
The Steelers (9-7) surely would love to face Baltimore’s backups in Week 18. After staying in the AFC wild-card hunt with Sunday’s 30-23 win at Seattle, they have five paths to earn a playoff berth.
Three of the scenarios require Pittsburgh to win while getting help elsewhere in the conference. Pittsburgh could also get in with a tie, a Jacksonville loss and the Houston-Indianapolis game not ending in a tie. If the Steelers lose, but Jacksonville loses, Denver beats Las Vegas and Houston and Indianapolis don’t tie, Pittsburgh would sneak in, too.
The Steelers will continue to place their hopes on the shoulders of Mason Rudolph, their third starting quarterback this season. In two starts, both Pittsburgh wins, Rudolph has completed 68.6 percent of his passes for 564 yards, two touchdowns and zero interceptions.
Kenny Pickett was inactive against Seattle while recovering from an ankle injury, but he is now healthy and will be Rudolph’s backup Sunday. Pickett refuted a rumor that he refused to dress against Seattle if the starting job wasn’t returned to him.
“One man’s misfortune is another man’s opportunity,” Pickett said Tuesday. “Mason played well when he got in there. I have a ton of respect for Mason and everything that he’s done and what our team has been doing. My job now that I’m back healthy is to be the backup.”
“There’s never been an awkward air. Those guys are dear friends and always professional,” Rudolph said of his fellow quarterbacks.
Pittsburgh star T.J. Watt is tied for the league lead with 17 sacks. He recorded two sacks and recovered a fumble when the host Steelers defeated the Ravens 17-10 in October.
Pittsburgh has won six of its past seven games against Baltimore dating back to the 2020 season — all seven decided by seven points or fewer.
Steelers safety Minkah Fitzpatrick (knee) and linebacker Elandon Roberts (pectoral) did not participate in Pittsburgh’s walkthrough Tuesday. Running back Najee Harris (knee) — who had season highs of 27 carries, 122 yards and two touchdowns against Seattle — was limited along with guard Isaac Seumalo (shoulder), defensive tackle Cameron Heyward (groin) and safety Trenton Thompson (neck). Pickett was a full participant.
Baltimore’s estimated injury report listed leading receiver Zay Flowers (calf), linebacker Malik Harrison (groin), cornerback Marlon Humphrey (calf) and cornerback Daryl Worley (shoulder/ankle) as non-participants. Star safety Kyle Hamilton (knee) and linebacker Patrick Queen (shoulder) were among seven Ravens listed as limited.
–Field Level Media