Leading up to Sunday’s wild card matchup against the Chargers, much anticipation surrounded Lamar Jackson’s first-career playoff game. Jackson entered the game as the youngest quarterback ever to start a postseason contest, and he evidently looked the part.
Jackson was rattled early and often by the Chargers defense. He fumbled on back-to-back possessions in the first quarter, and while neither resulted in a turnover, they were careless mistakes that prevented Baltimore from gaining any momentum.
After connecting with Willie Snead IV for a first-down conversion on the Ravens opening drive, Jackson completed just two more passes over the next two quarters. He began the fourth quarter having completed three of nine passes for 25 yards.
For most of Sunday afternoon, Jackson was not good. If you look past his fourth quarter showing, it was a nightmarish debut. After the game, he took responsibility for his poor performance and owned up to it.
“We just played like we didn’t want to be here,” Jackson said. “I did, not my team. I feel like I played poorly.” Jackson fumbled three times and tossed an interception that, while dropped by Chris Moore, was thrown slightly off-target.
Amidst his struggles, fans on social media began pleading for Joe Flacco to enter the game. Chants of “We want Joe!” and loud boos could be heard throughout the stadium.
While Harbaugh admittedly considered making a change at quarterback, he ultimately ended up keeping Jackson in the game, echoing that he gave the Ravens the best chance to win. Not only is he correct, but inserting Flacco into the game could easily have had adverse effects.
Flacco had not played since Week 9 of the regular season after suffering a hip injury. Expecting him to enter a playoff contest mid-game and immediately spark a comeback against a top-flight defense is simply not realistic.
While Flacco is a proven playoff performer, there’s no telling he would be able to replicate past performances against a top-flight Chargers defense. Flacco was frankly not very effective for much of this season and if he entered in the second half on Sunday, there likely would be some rust after a two-month absence.
More importantly, Jackson was not the only reason for Baltimore’s struggles. The entire offense was subpar; the running game was ineffective, the receivers struggled with drops and separation, and the offensive line was manhandled.
For much of the game, he was running for his life from Joey Bosa, Melvin Ingram, and other Chargers defenders. Jackson was sacked seven times, five of which came before the fourth quarter.
Even more notable, however, was the poor offensive play-calling. After playing Baltimore just a few weeks ago, the Chargers were prepared for whatever the Ravens attempted to throw at them. Marty Mornhinwhig failed to make adjustments throughout the game.
Would Flacco, whose 33 years old and coming off a hip injury, have had any more success than Jackson in evading the Chargers pass rush? Would he have made the offensive line block better and the receivers create separation? Could he have overcome poor play-calling?
The answers to all these questions, simply put, is no.
With Jackson at the helm, the Ravens led the league in rushing by a wide margin, won six of seven games, and captured their first division title since 2012. While they could have afforded to deviate slightly from their gameplan on Sunday, the Ravens had developed an identity and winning formula.
In all likelihood, the Ravens aren’t even in the position they were yesterday without Lamar Jackson’s ascendance this season. With Flacco at the helm, Baltimore was 4-5 and riding a three-game losing streak heading into the bye week.
For all his imperfections as a pure quarterback, Jackson earned the right to remain in the game. In order for him to improve going forward, it's important that he gain experience in playoff situations and learn to play through his mistakes. Pulling him from the game could have had a damaging effect to his confidence.
In the fourth quarter, he threw for 156 yards and two touchdowns, nearly willing the Ravens to a come-from-behind victory. Although it came against softer, prevent defense from the Chargers, Jackson bounced back from a poor start and demonstrated both composure and mental toughness.
“I don’t think Joe would have played any better in the two-minute,” said Harbaugh. “Lamar is our quarterback of the future, there’s no question about that.”