Eisenberg: What Matters, And What Doesn't, in Ravens vs. Chargers Wild-Card Game 


With so many notions and angles swirling in the media as kickoff nears, I feel compelled to try to separate what matters from what won't matter when the Ravens and Los Angeles Chargers square off in a wild-card round playoff game Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium.

There's Lamar Jackson's age, for instance. I'm sure you've heard the Ravens' rookie is about to become the youngest NFL quarterback ever to start a postseason game.

He's 21. In fact, as he told reporters this week, he's been 21 all year.

I get why there's so much fuss about it. Jackson is just five years older than the eldest child of the Chargers' Philip Rivers, his opposite under center Sunday. That's not a typical situation.

But I don't think Jackson's age will matter.

It's not that I don't believe in the potential value of experience, especially in a situation as pressurized as the NFL playoffs. It can help to have been there before, as Rivers has.

But that doesn't mean the absence of experience reflexively becomes an obstacle. It depends on how the individual handles it, and I think Jackson is wired just right for the occasion.

The playoffs are a big stage, but Jackson has only known big stages since he was tagged as a special talent in the peewee ranks. That was a long time and many important games ago.

You think he distinguishes Sunday as somehow different, a breed of game special enough to intimidate him? Shoot, just two weeks ago he led the Ravens to victory in a must-win game against the same opponent. The rematch really is no different, just has the p-word attached.

Jackson isn't fazed in the least by this. Being in the playoffs is what he expects. Some unforeseen factor might give him trouble Sunday, but it won't be his age.

Another factor getting a lot of attention is the Chargers' road record. They went 7-1 away from home, beating the Steelers in Pittsburgh and the Chiefs in Kansas City.

That's impressive. Some teams artificially gin up a "circle the wagons, everyone is against us" mindset for motivation, but it's real in the Chargers' case. Fans in San Diego are angry with them for leaving. Fans in Los Angeles haven't exactly embraced them. The players and coaches only have each other, producing a togetherness that works well in hostile environments.

But the Ravens' approach also is a positive. Head Coach John Harbaugh has said this is the best team he has been around as far as sticking together and having each other's backs. That underrated quality can help in January.

What about the fact that, as mentioned, these teams just played? There's been a lot of talk about who could benefit, but I see it as just an interesting coincidence, not potentially decisive.

Oh, it probably helps the Chargers to have gone against Jackson and the Ravens' unusual, ground-oriented attack so recently. But the Ravens understand that. Both coaching staffs are going to make adjustments, which could lead to a different kind of game, probably with more scoring. "Every game is its own entity," Ravens Offensive Coordinator Marty Mornhinweg said this week. I agree.

What about the Ravens' stellar playoff history? I'm not hearing much about that, and I guess I know why. Only a handful of this year's Ravens were around for the team's last playoff journey in 2014. How could what happened then or, say, in 2000, help Sunday?

But I see a potential correlation. There are reasons why some teams fare well in January and some don't (see: Bengals, Cincinnati). Historically, the Ravens are well-coached, strong defensively, physically tough and adept at running the ball. That's a sound philosophy built for the postseason.

The Ravens are 15-8 in the playoffs, including 7-1 in first-round games. Harbaugh is 5-0 in the first round.

I might be in the minority, but I think it's an encouraging indicator for Sunday that the Ravens are among the NFL's most successful January franchises, and that this year's team is cut straight from the mold that has worked so well before.

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