MIKE BURKE

Allegany Communications Sports­­

All talk and plaudits of organizational strength, stability and adaptability, visionary player development, ingenious schemes and rich talent, while seemingly true, will be put to the test beginning (or ending) Saturday afternoon when the Baltimore Ravens host the Houston Texans in an AFC semifinal game.

Will it be 2019 all over again when the same plaudits had poured in to Baltimore after a dominant regular season performance, only to have it fizzle out with a disheartening one-and-done to the Tennessee Titans on the same M&T Bank Stadium field?

Or will it be the first step of a deep playoff run and Super Bowl title the likes of which haven’t been seen in Baltimore since the days of Flacco?

The 2023 Ravens are nothing like the 2019 Ravens. This team is better, deeper, more adaptable, more versatile and more talented. The quarterback of this Ravens team is better than the quarterback of that team was, and the quarterback of that team was the unanimous MVP of the NFL — the same person in Lamar Jackson, but a far better quarterback as the likely 2023 MVP of the NFL.

John Harbaugh is in his 16th season as head coach of the Ravens and is now the second-longest tenured and second-oldest head coach in the league. Tomorrow’s game will mark his 11th postseason with the Ravens, who have gone 11-7 under Harbaugh with three conference championship game appearances and a Super Bowl title.

The last Baltimore playoff win came in the 2020 Wild Card game when the Ravens returned the favor and went into Tennessee to beat the Titans, 20-13. Last year, they just missed winning at Cincinnati without the services of Jackson.

There have been other near misses as well, two of them coming to eventual world champion New England, with the 2011 Ravens falling one dropped Lee Evans touchdown pass short of going to the Super Bowl.

This Ravens team, which has the best record in the NFL, is better equipped for the playoffs than any Baltimore team since the 2012 team that won the Super Bowl, and much of that has to do with the changes Harbaugh made to his coaching staff and in installing a new offense to better utilize the skills of Jackson.

Maybe even more important, the Ravens have put better talent and more speed around Jackson to even heighten his skills, most notably at the receiver positions.

Saturday’s game with a red-hot Houston team is do or die for this group of Ravens players, as there are more than 20 of them who are set to become free agents after the season, many of them key contributors to a historically dominant defense who are unlikely to be back — tackle Justin Madubuike, linebackers Patrick Queen, Jadeveon Clowney and Kyle Van Noy, safety Geno Stone and cornerback Arthur Maulet.

Offensively, wide receivers Odell Beckham Jr. and Nelson Agholor, running backs J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards, guards Kevin Zeitler and John Simpson, and backup quarterbacks Tyler Huntley and Josh Johnson are headed for free agency as well.

Not only that, seven coaches and front office personnel have interviewed with other organizations, with second-year defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald and first-year offensive coordinator Todd Monken among the most sought-after candidates to be head coaches elsewhere.

Yes, it’s a huge game for the Ravens, but will it be too huge? It’s happened before, as we saw when the Titans came into Baltimore and, behind Derrick Henry, just flattened an already-flat Ravens team off the same first-round bye this year’s team received as the top seed in the conference.

The game was too huge for the 2006 Ravens, as well as the city of Baltimore, which absolutely psyched itself out all week in anticipation of hosting the hated Indianapolis Colts in the Divisional playoffs.

The Ravens defense of Ray Lewis did its job in not allowing Peyton Manning and the Colts to score a touchdown. The offense of Steve McNair and Jamal Lewis, however, didn’t show up, as the Colts beat the Ravens, 15-6, to short-circuit what had been a wired Baltimore sellout crowd.

That game also indirectly led to the hiring of Harbaugh as the Brain Billick I Love the Sound of My Voice Tour would play just one 5-11 season more in Baltimore.

Sometimes a team coming off a bye can be sharp with too fine of a point, and so can its leader and its players.

I don’t see that happening with this team, which has played with a common cause all season. This team has great veteran leadership, as well as exciting young talent, and complements all of its assets with great cohesion. The Ravens have a great coaching staff, but this team self-coaches, as Harbaugh has pointed out.

This team also understands it’s going to be Happy Trails for a lot of them once the season ends, and that this is going to be the best shot most of them will ever have to win a Super Bowl.

Saturday is a very big deal for a Ravens team that is capable of doing just that.

Mike Burke writes about sports and other stuff for Allegany Communications. He began covering sports for the Prince George’s Sentinel in 1981 and joined the Cumberland Times-News sports staff in 1984, serving as sports editor for over 30 years. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @MikeBurkeMDT