Lamar Jackson leads Ravens to AFC's top seed a year after uncertainty clouded his health and future

Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson passes against the San Francisco 49ers during the first half of an NFL football game in Santa Clara, Calif., Monday, Dec. 25, 2023. (AP Photo/Godofredo A. Vásquez)

Lamar Jackson will miss out on wild-card weekend for a second straight year, and this time it’s for a much better reason.

The Baltimore Ravens and their star quarterback earned the AFC’s top playoff seed and the conference’s sole bye with a dominant regular-season run just one year after uncertainty clouded Jackson’s health and future.

Jackson missed the final five regular-season games and the playoffs a year ago because of a left knee injury, and Tyler Huntley started in his place when the Ravens lost to Cincinnati in a wild-card round game.

That was followed by months of doubt about Jackson’s status before he signed a five-year, $260 million contract extension with the Ravens, the $52 million-per-year pact briefly making him the NFL’s highest-paid player (before Joe Burrow and Justin Herbert surpassed him).

Jackson said back then that he’d suffered a Grade 2 sprain — moderate ligament damage and partial tearing — that was “on the borderline” of a Grade 3 sprain, which involves a complete ligament tear.

Instead of rehabbing like last year, Jackson will spend this year’s wild-card weekend resting after leading the Ravens to an NFL-best 13 wins, including blowouts of the 49ers and Dolphins.

The games kick off Saturday with the Cleveland Browns (11-6) visiting the Houston Texans (10-7) in a matchup of two of the four NFL teams (Lions, Jaguars) who have never appeared in a Super Bowl.

Tyreek Hill returns to Kansas City when the Miami Dolphins (11-6) visit the Chiefs (11-6) on Saturday night, and the Buffalo Bills (11-6) host the Pittsburgh Steelers (10-7) on Sunday.

1. BALTIMORE RAVENS (13-4). Two Lombardi trophies in two Super Bowl appearances: beat Giants 34-7 in Super Bowl 35, beat 49ers 34-31 in Super Bowl 47. Last year: 10-7, No. 6 seed, lost 24-17 to Bengals in wild-card round.

Plan the parade: The Ravens have been excellent in all three phases this season. Their offense is led by MVP candidate Lamar Jackson and their special teams by perhaps the greatest kicker of all time in Justin Tucker. And the defense might be the team’s biggest strength, with LBs Roquan Smith and Patrick Queen, S Kyle Hamilton, DT Justin Madubuike and edge rushers Jadeveon Clowney and Kyle Van Noy all enjoying terrific seasons. Baltimore has also been tested. The Ravens faced 14 teams that finished the regular season with a winning record — and they still had the best record and best point differential in the league.

Hold the confetti: There’s some pressure on this team because the Ravens lost their playoff opener four seasons ago when they were also the top seed in the AFC. Cleveland and Pittsburgh — which handed Baltimore three of its four defeats — each has a chance to be the Ravens’ opponent in the divisional round. The Ravens have been so good that they never trailed by more than seven points until the fourth quarter of Week 18, but as good as Jackson is, a significant deficit could take them out of their game.

“Everybody is going to give you everything they’ve got, because it’s win or go home. It’s your life or their life, and most cats are going to choose their own.”– Smith.

2. BUFFALO BILLS (11-6). No Lombardi trophies in four Super Bowl appearances: lost to Giants 20-19 in Super Bowl 25, lost to Washington 37-24 in Super Bowl 26, lost to Cowboys 52-17 in Super Bowl 27, lost to Cowboys 30-13 in Super Bowl 28. Last year: 13-3, No. 2 seed, beat Dolphins 34-31 in wild-card round, lost to Bengals 27-10 in divisional round.

Plan the parade: The Bills are the hottest team entering the postseason, having won five straight, are 5-1 against the playoff field and appear to have addressed their late-game issues from the first half of the season. After opening 2-6 in games decided by a touchdown or less, they closed 6-6. With QB Josh Allen, anything is possible with his dual-threat abilities to generate first downs and an NFL-leading 44 touchdowns (29 passing/15 rushing). The offense has developed secondary threats in the passing game and features more balance with a bigger focus on its running attack. The defense has overcome a rash of injuries to finish ninth in the NFL in yards allowed and fourth in points allowed.

Hold the confetti: This is still the team that blew late leads in the final minute in losses to Philadelphia, New England and Denver, with a too-many-men flag giving Broncos kicker Wil Lutz a second chance to hit a game-winning field goal as time expired after he missed his first attempt. Dynamic as Allen has been, the quarterback can’t shake his turnover-prone ways. His 18 interceptions were a career high and second in the NFL behind Sam Howell’s 21 with Washington. As well as the defense — already missing starting CB Tre’Davious White and linebacker Matt Milano — has held up, it works best when playing with a lead. Buffalo is 2-4 this season when trailing or tied at the half.

“I think it got to a certain point in a year where it’s just like, ‘Hey, this is the way it’s going to be so it’s time to buck up and get the job done.'”– coach Sean McDermott on Buffalo’s late-season surge.

3. KANSAS CITY CHIEFS (11-6). Three Lombardi trophies in five Super Bowl appearances: lost to Packers 35-10 in Super Bowl 1, beat Vikings 23-7 in Super Bowl 4, beat 49ers 31-20 in Super Bowl 54, lost to Buccaneers 31-9 in Super Bowl 55, beat Eagles 38-35 in Super Bowl 57. Last year: No. 1 seed, beat Jaguars 27-20 in divisional round, beat Bengals 23-20 in AFC championship game.

Plan the parade: The Chiefs have been to three of the past four Super Bowls and won two of them, and many of the key names have been part of them all. That includes coach Andy Reid, QB Patrick Mahomes and TE Travis Kelce. But whereas the Chiefs of yesteryear were led by a dynamic offense that could score touchdowns on every play, this year’s team has been led by one of the stingiest defenses in the league. The Chiefs were No. 2 in total yards and scoring during the regular season, and they held opponents to 20 points or fewer in 13 of their 17 games.

Hold the confetti: The Chiefs led the NFL in dropped passes, they have been prone to penalties at inopportune times and they were minus-11 in turnover margin. In other words, they have been incredibly sloppy for a team that won an eighth straight AFC West title. Their wide receivers in particular have been an inconsistent trouble spot aside from rookie Rashee Rice, who has developed into an exciting and dependable player on the perimeter.

“Previous games — wins, loss — they mean nothing. That has absolutely no bearing on what’s going to happen. The best team is going to come out on top in the playoffs.”– safety Justin Reid.

4. HOUSTON TEXANS (11-6). No Super Bowl appearances. Last year: 3-13-1.

Plan the parade: Almost no one outside the organization expected the Texans to return to the playoffs this season. They made a remarkable turnaround in large part because of the stellar play of rookie QB C.J. Stroud, the second overall pick in the 2023 draft out of Ohio State. Despite missing two games with a concussion, Stroud threw for 4,108 yards, the third-highest total ever by a rookie. He has 23 touchdown passes with just five interceptions. Stroud has Houston ranked seventh in the NFL in yards passing per game after two seasons in which the Texans ranked among the worst in the league with Davis Mills at quarterback.

Hold the confetti: Houston’s pass defense has been the team’s Achilles’ heel. The Texans rank 23rd in the league by giving up 234.1 yards passing a game. They have struggled to limit explosive plays in the passing game and often allow long TD receptions. Their worst game in this area came in a Dec. 24 loss to the Browns when Amari Cooper had a 53-yard reception on the first play of the game and a 75-yard TD catch en route to a franchise-record 265 yards receiving. Defensive coordinator Matt Burke said he’s stressing to his group the importance of limiting these big plays in the passing game as Houston enters the postseason.

“I talked about all throughout the year of us learning how to win, learning how to win, and I feel like we’ve done that, and we have valuable experience that will carry us throughout these playoffs.” — first-year head coach DeMeco Ryans.

5. CLEVELAND BROWNS (11-6). No Super Bowl appearances but won NFL championship games in 1950, 1954, 1955 and 1964 before the Super Bowl era began in the 1966 season. Last year: 7-10.

Plan the parade: Undaunted by numerous key injures since the opener, the Browns are in the postseason for just the third time since 1999. It’s their second visit in four years under coach Kevin Stefanski, who has established a positive culture for a franchise once awash in dysfunction. Edge rusher Myles Garrett makes Cleveland’s top-rated defense go. All it took for the offense to find its mojo was Deshaun Watson’s season-ending shoulder injury and 38-year-old QB Joe Flacco to fall off his couch in New Jersey. The Browns were the only team to beat top seeds Baltimore and San Francisco.

Hold the confetti: Flacco’s magical ride could be all smoke and mirrors. He’s gotten away with some risky throws and Cleveland’s O-line has managed to protect him despite being without both starting tackles. A strong defensive front could change that with extreme pressure. The Browns have also somehow managed to defy the laws of football analytics by winning 11 games despite leading the NFL in giveaways. Turnovers in the postseason can be costly. This could end with Flacco hoisting the Lombardi Trophy again or flaming out early.

“You’re promised one game here, that’s something good to fall back on. You can get comfort in that. One game. Prepare as hard as you can for one week and then when that’s all done, pick up and see where we’re at.” — Flacco.

6. MIAMI DOLPHINS: (11-6). Two Lombardi trophies in five Super Bowl appearances: lost to Cowboys 24-3 in Super Bowl 6, beat Washington 14-7 in Super Bowl 7, beat Vikings 24-7 in Super Bowl 8, lost to Washington 27-17 in Super Bowl 17, lost to 49ers 38-16 in Super Bowl 19. Last year: 9-8, No. 7 seed, lost 34-31 to Bills in wild-card round.

Plan the parade: The Dolphins have had the NFL’s top-ranked offense all season behind Tua Tagovailoa and Tyreek Hill. Tagovailoa led the league in passing with a career-high 4,624 yards, and Hill was one of the NFL’s top deep threats with a league-best 1,799 yards and 13 TD receptions. Miami has been at its best when it has had a balanced offensive attack, which also featured the shifty, speedy running of Raheem Mostert and rookie De’Von Achane. That, along with a defense that got better as the season went on, led the Dolphins to a playoff berth for the second straight season.

Hold the confetti: This team doesn’t have much recent playoff experience. The Dolphins have not won a playoff game since Dec. 30, 2000, when they beat the Colts in overtime. Ending that drought won’t be easy, as a string of late-season injuries have left the Dolphins with a patchwork defense, while consecutive losses to Baltimore and Buffalo denied the Dolphins the chance to open the postseason at home. Miami was 1-5 in regular-season games played against playoff opponents.

“That is rough. Myself and the whole organization want to deliver on ending that and doing right by all those years of passion.”– coach Mike McDaniel on playoff win drought.

7. PITTSBURGH STEELERS (10-7). Six Lombardi trophies in eight Super Bowl appearances: beat Vikings 16-6 in Super Bowl 9, beat Cowboys 21-17 in Super Bowl 10, beat Cowboys 35-31 in Super Bowl 13, beat Rams 31-19 in Super Bowl 14, lost 27-17 to Cowboys in Super Bowl 30, beat Seahawks 21-10 in Super Bowl 40, beat Cardinals 27-23 in Super Bowl 43, lost 31-25 to Packers in Super Bowl 45. Last year: 9-8.

Plan the parade: The Steelers have been here before. Back in 2005, Pittsburgh entered the playoffs as the last seed in the AFC, won three road games before beating Seattle in the Super Bowl for the franchise’s fifth championship. That team had a big-armed QB (Ben Roethlisberger), a two-headed RB monster (Willie Parker and Jerome Bettis), a future Hall of Fame defender (Troy Polamalu) and got hot late in the season. This team has a big-armed QB (Mason Rudolph), a two-headed RB monster (Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren), a (possible) future Hall of Fame defender (T.J. Watt) and got hot late in the season.

Hold the confetti: Watt, who led the NFL in sacks for a third time, is out at least this week after injuring his left knee in the regular-season finale against Baltimore. Pro Bowl S Minkah Fitzpatrick is hardly 100% after recovering from a knee injury and while Rudolph has done a pretty solid Roethlisberger impression over the past three weeks, his resume isn’t exactly Roethlisberger-like.

“There’s been some hot moments over the last three weeks. We’ve essentially kind of been in the playoffs.” — coach Mike Tomlin.


AP Sports Writers Noah Trister, John Wawrow, Dave Skretta, Kristie Rieken, Tom Withers, Alanis Thames and Will Graves contributioned.


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