Joe Flacco is available this week, but rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson will continue to start for the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday when they face the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Baltimore.
That Flacco has been cleared to play but head coach John Harbaugh is sticking with Jackson could signal a changing of the guard in Baltimore.
Since the dual-threat Jackson took over for the injured Flacco, the Ravens have gone 3-1 and played their way back into the AFC playoff race.
“We just try to go out there and win,” Harbaugh said. “Like we say from the beginning, every decision is based on what makes us the strongest possible team we can be, and that’s — whether it’s quarterback or defensive line or whatever — that’s the bottom line. That’s what it boils down to, and that’s how we feel about this decision, and we’re rolling.”
Jackson downplayed the decision to stay with him over Flacco, who has been out since Nov. 4 with a hip injury.
“I pretty much didn’t really have a reaction to when Coach was telling me,” Jackson said. “All it made me do was … I know I have to focus on everything a lot more — just bettering myself and trying to join with everybody around me even more. That’s about it.”
Flacco will serve as the backup for the first time in his 11-year career.
“My overall thought about it is obviously disappointed that I can’t be part of this team in the same capacity I have been for a long time,” Flacco said. “You always have to be ready and stay sharp and be ready to get the call at any point.”
The Ravens (7-6) need a win over the Buccaneers to remain in the sixth and final playoff spot in the AFC wild-card race. They’re tied with the Indianapolis Colts, Miami Dolphins and Tennessee Titans, but the Ravens hold the tiebreaker.
There’s also a path for the Ravens to win the AFC North. The Pittsburgh Steelers lead the Ravens by just a half-game and face a formidable challenge the next two weeks against the New England Patriots and New Orleans Saints.
The Ravens close with the Los Angeles Chargers on the road and the Cleveland Browns at home.
“Guys should come away excited about the next opportunity we get to rebound and get a huge win at home and keep the momentum,” Ravens safety Eric Weddle said. “Right now, the way we’re playing, no one is going to want to face us (down the stretch). We’ve got to do our job to get into the playoffs and see what happens. We’ll be a team to be reckoned with, for sure.”
The Ravens’ improved rushing attack has allowed them to be more of a ball-control offense, and they hope to be able to run against the Buccaneers, who allow 119.4 yards rushing per game.
Baltimore’s defense, meanwhile, faces a Tampa Bay offense that is ranked second in the NFL with 430.1 yards per game.
The Ravens will try to contain Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston and wide receiver Mike Evans.
Winston has passed for 2,154 yards with 14 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. He is 2-1 as the starter since returning from a benching. Evans ranks sixth in the league with 1,207 receiving yards.
Backup quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick has thrown for 2,366 yards, 17 touchdowns and 12 interceptions in place of Winston.
The Buccaneers (5-8) are a playoff long shot, but a strong finish could save some jobs in Tampa Bay. Head coach Dirk Koetter and general manager Jason Licht likely will feel heat if the Buccaneers melt down the rest of the way.
Defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul said the Buccaneers are preparing for one of their most physically challenging games of the season.
“Any time when you have a running quarterback, you’re looking at a more physical game,” Pierre-Paul said. “Just to play that is difficult. I’m not going to lie, their option stuff is difficult and anybody in the NFL — D-end-wise — if they say it’s not that’s a lie.”
Buccaneers defensive coordinator Mark Duffner plans to prepare his unit for both Ravens quarterbacks.
“We’ve got a two-headed dragon we’re trying to slay,” Duffner said.