Derrick Henry vs. Lamar Jackson: A Saturday night battle for NFL MVP?
The Tennessee Titans playing the Baltimore Ravens on Saturday night means there will be a new Super Bowl champion in the NFL come 2020. The Titans ensured that by toppling the Patriots dynasty in a surprise 20-13 upset that knocked the six-time Super Bowl winners out of the playoffs in the Wild Card Round for the first time since 2009 — also the last year they did not have a first-round bye.
The Titans' reward seems more like a punishment: They face the NFL's best team in the regular season on the road. The Ravens, who last made the Super Bowl during the 2012-13 season, are poised to make a serious run behind the play of MVP front-runner Lamar Jackson. Riding a 12-game win streak, the Ravens bulldozed through fellow contenders like the 49ers, Texans, and Seahawks to secure home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
The Titans, meanwhile, had to fight their way in after late-season losses against the Texans and Saints. Quarterback Ryan Tannehill rallied the troops, beating the Texans' backups in Week 17 to earn a spot before running back Derrick Henry took the team on his back to break the Patriots' run on the AFC in Foxboro.
Can the Titans keep their Cinderella momentum rolling this weekend? Or will the glass slipper crack on the Baltimore turf against a team that shut out the Titans 21-0 the last time they played? This rivalry has been incredibly tight with the Ravens leading the all-time series 12-11, including 2-1 in the postseason.
AFC Divisional Playoff: Tennessee at Baltimore
Kickoff: Saturday, Jan. 11 at 8:15 p.m. ET
Spread: Ravens -10
Three Things To Watch
1. Can Derrick Henry outrun the Ravens' defense?
Henry singlehandedly toppled the Patriots last week, rushing for 182 yards and the game-winning touchdown at the end of the first half. Henry earned every one of the 75 yards for the Titans on that drive; in total, he racked up 75 percent of the Titans' total offense.
And in that game, it's not like the Patriots' defense struggled. Ryan Tannehill was limited to 72 passing yards, and the Titans' offense didn’t score at all in the second half. But in the end, Henry as a one-man wrecking crew was enough to get the Titans over the finish line.
How can he be stopped?
"Start fast," Ravens linebacker Matthew Judon said on "Good Morning Football" this week. "We want to hit him as many times as possible. We know he's a good running back, but it all starts with us. Our communication, our assignment, and our technique. As long as we do that, we're going to be able to attack him in different ways that he hasn't seen this year. We understand that he's one of the best running backs in the league, and we can't sleep on him because once he gets started, he's a hard tackle."
The Ravens were fifth in the NFL against the run, allowing 93.4 yards per game, but they're susceptible to a running back like Henry. Their 4.4 yards per rushing play ranked just 21st in the league, and they gave up more than 100 rushing yards five times in the second half of the season. In one of their two losses, the Browns' Nick Chubb racked up 165 yards and three touchdowns on 20 carries. Of course, that loss came back in September — a lifetime ago in Ravens land — but is worth noting considering Henry's ascendance.
2. Who will be the offensive superstar for the Ravens... other than Lamar Jackson?
Jackson's MVP status for the Ravens is clear to even the most casual NFL fan. But once any team reaches the postseason, it's hard for the quarterback himself to do it on his own. As we saw with Tom Brady last week, weapons have to be open and available for Jackson to throw to.
Part of opening up the passing lanes is a solid Ravens run game and that's in question with Mark Ingram's calf injury. Ingram went through limited practice Thursday — his first since the Dec. 22 injury and a good sign he’ll suit up for Saturday night's game — but it's clear he’ll be less than 100 percent. Gus Edwards is prepared to go in Ingram's stead, and he's a capable backup, piling up 130 yards on 21 carries in the season finale against the Steelers.
Jackson alone has rushed for 100-plus yards five times this season, racking up a quarterback-record 1,206 yards. It was part of a multi-dimensional rushing offense that led the NFL with 206.0 yards per game. Will the potential loss of Ingram be enough to slow the Ravens down, allowing the defense to focus more on Jackson? Defensively, the Titans ranked 12th against the run but allowed the Patriots to rush for 98 yards, their best performance in a month.
The Ravens receivers, usually bit players, have not had a 100-yard receiving game by any individual the second half of the season. Can rookies Marquise Brown or Miles Boykin step up and make a big catch deep if needed? How about the inconsistent play of Willie Snead? Someone needs to become a "go-to" guy if the Titans are able to stuff the Ravens at the line of scrimmage.
3. Can Jackson overcome last year's playoff demons?
Jackson has been absolutely incredible all year. In a way, you figure the pressure for this game falls on Tannehill, who must figure out how to reignite the offense Saturday night if the Ravens' defense buckles down and stops Henry.
And yet... there are questions here. Jackson had perhaps the worst game of his career last postseason against the Chargers. He fumbled three times, threw an interception, and passed for just 194 yards in a 23-17 loss that had fans seeking out Joe Flacco after an anemic first half.
"I really hate it," he said this week on the Baltimore Ravens website. "I can't wait to play this week coming up. I don't want to really talk about it anymore. It's over."
Certainly, Jackson is a whole different level of player in the way he's matured over the last 12 months. But playoff horror stories don't dissipate until there's a new chapter written in the history books. Jackson has to go out and prove that poor postseason play is behind him. How will he respond to an early turnover? Or if the Titans get on the board early? An MVP candidacy along with the Ravens' Super Bowl hopes will hang in the balance.
The forecast for this game is iffy for Saturday night. While unseasonably warm (61 degrees at kickoff) there's a 90 percent chance of heavy rain sometime during the evening. Winds will also be kicking up, out of the south at 10-20 mph.
In some ways, that benefits the Ravens in a low-scoring game with one of the best kickers of all time, Pro Bowler Justin Tucker, sitting on their roster. The first-team All-Pro missed just one field goal this season, going 28-for-29 in what was a disappointing year for kickers overall.
But despite the home-field advantage, a raging downpour turns this game into a battle of the trenches. It gives Henry an opportunity to match Jackson run-for-run and cuts down the horsepower of the Ravens' passing offense.
Of all three teams the Ravens could have faced (Bills, Texans, Titans) it was Tennessee who was always going to provide the most difficult matchup. Can Jackson go out and win a low-scoring game where one bad turnover makes the difference? Can the defense stop Henry?
If there's one upset you’ll see in the divisional round, it will come here. The Titans are playing with house money after putting away the Patriots' dynasty, no small feat, and have one of the game's most innovative new head coaches in Mike Vrabel. Lamar Jackson, still young, has to prove he doesn't need another year of postseason seasoning and those early demons are clearly behind him.
Prediction: Tennessee 17, Baltimore 13
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NASCARBowles.