Until recently, the Green Bay Packers playing the Baltimore Ravens this weekend would have been viewed as a potential Super Bowl LVI preview. The Packers (10-3) have sure lived up to their end of the bargain, Aaron Rodgers guiding his team to wins in three of their past four games as they cruise atop the NFC North. In position for home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, they’ll take their division Sunday with a victory or a Minnesota loss.
The Ravens? They’re in front of their division, too at 8-5 overall, but sitting in a precarious spot in the AFC North since holding the top seed in the conference just two weeks ago. It’s not just a two-game losing streak but the way in which those losses have come that is making people nervous. Both were decided by a total of three points, games in which the Ravens had a chance to win despite major missteps only to let it slip away in the final minutes.
Against the Steelers, it was a dropped 2-point conversion pass by tight end Mark Andrews that made the difference. Then, after losing starting quarterback Lamar Jackson against the Browns, backup Tyler Huntley led a late comeback that included the team’s first onside kick recovery in 20 years. They were in position, down two and needing a handful of yards to go with the most reliable kicker in NFL history, Justin Tucker, sitting on the sidelines. The stars seemed aligned for another fourth-quarter miracle, the Ravens' mantra in a year Tucker hit an NFL-record 66-yard field goal.
But Huntley couldn’t move the ball, Tucker never stepped foot on the field and this week finds the Ravens with their backs against the wall. All four of their remaining games are against teams with records of .500 or better. Just 1.5 games separate first from last in their division, meaning the playoffs are far from a guarantee. And an ankle injury for Jackson leaves the former NFL MVP's status a major question mark.
Can this team, faced with so much adversity this season, rise to the occasion under head coach John Harbaugh? Or are the Packers in position to steamroll another opponent on the road in their march toward a playoff spot?
Green Bay (10-3) at Baltimore (8-5)
Kickoff: Sunday, Dec. 19 at 4:25 p.m. ET
Spread: Packers -6.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Who will actually play in this game (including Lamar Jackson)?
Jackson’s status, officially questionable, is shrouded in mystery after he didn’t practice at all this week.
“He’s getting treatment around the clock,” offensive coordinator Greg Roman said this week. “He’s a good healer but we will have to see what the [doctors] say.”
That puts Huntley in position to start for the second time in a month. He’s been serviceable enough, squeaking out a win against the Chicago Bears and coming alive in the fourth quarter against the Browns. But the Packers are playing at a much different level and feast upon opposing quarterbacks: their 14 interceptions have them tied for sixth in the NFL.
Jackson is one of seven Ravens players with a questionable tag heading into this game. This group includes two starting offensive linemen (Alejandro Villanueva and Patrick Mekari), and Ben Powers has already been ruled out with a foot injury. Add in an illness for wide receiver Marquise Brown and a questionable tag for fullback Patrick Ricard (back/knee), and Huntley is facing a double whammy of limited weapons and pass protection.
Both teams have avoided, for the most part, the COVID-19 surge that has swallowed up the NFL this week and forced a number of postponements. But the Ravens did lose one player, starting safety Chuck Clark, to those protocols, leaving a hole on their defense for Rodgers to exploit. Defensive end Calais Campbell also is unlikely to play (he's listed as doubtful) after suffering a thigh injury against the Browns.
On the Packers’ side, starting offensive tackle David Bakhtiari is out due to a knee injury, and guard Billy Turner (knee) also won't play. However, the team’s COVID issues are limited (defensive lineman Kenny Clark is the only player currently on the Reserve/COVID-19 list as Jordan Love was just activated) and their offensive stars, Rodgers and running back Aaron Jones, are in no danger of missing Sunday’s contest.
2. Where will the Ravens' offense come from?
That’s the big question after the team has gone through the worst injury crisis of potentially any NFL team in the past decade. Andrews continues to emerge as a premier tight end, tying his season high with 11 catches against the Browns. Rookie Rashod Bateman exploded onto the scene in that same game with 103 receiving yards and a touchdown.
It’s the story of the Ravens’ season, one in which they’ve lost their top three running backs to season-ending injuries only for Devonta Freeman to step up and do a serviceable job (4.3 yards per carry, 341 yards the last six games). Role players will need to step up against a Packers defense that is holding opponents to just 20.9 points per game, sixth in the NFL.
3. Will Rodgers keep rolling?
The Packers aren’t a complete team yet; special teams miscues, in particular, against the Bears last weekend showcased a weakness they’ll need to shore up (allowing a 97-yard punt return TD).
That said, it’s hard to argue against Rodgers’ recent run of success. In the last three games, he’s been nothing short of sensational: 1,033 passing yards, 10 touchdowns, no interceptions. And he's done all of this with a fractured toe that only seems to be getting worse and is preventing him from practicing. The offense has exploded to the tune of 39 points per game, turning the ball over only once during that stretch.
It’s a tall order for the Ravens' defense to stop, even at home. Without all their pieces in the secondary, the Rodgers-Davante Adams connection is primed for its fourth straight week of 100-plus yards. Despite missing a week due to COVID-19 protocols, Adams' 90 catches and 1,204 yards both rank in the top five in the league.
It’s hard to see the Packers losing this one with the black cloud surrounding the Ravens this season finally taking its toll. Harbaugh has done a masterful job of coaching this season, but you can only lose so many players to injury and illness before the luck simply starts to run out.
The Ravens are in trouble.
Prediction: Packers 38, Ravens 14
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NASCARBowles.