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Ravens Insider: What’s in a bye week? Ravens seek to ease fans’ anxiety by winning playoff game after first-round rest | ANALYSIS


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Forgive Baltimore fans for being jaded.

Really, they should be confident. The Ravens finished the regular season with the league’s best record and, in the minds of most, are the class of the NFL. Lamar Jackson is the presumptive NFL Most Valuable Player, the receiving corps has been strong and the defense has been even better. Baltimore will rest this weekend — while other teams beat each other up — before hosting the AFC team with the lowest-remaining seed Jan. 20 or 21 in the divisional round.

But the city of Baltimore hasn’t seen a home playoff win since 2013, and the ghost of 2019’s disappointing loss to the Tennessee Titans haunts Ravens fans evermore. Plus, across the street from M&T Bank Stadium, the Orioles fell flat in October’s postseason after a dominant and exhilarating regular season in which they won an American League-best 101 games.

Some fans, citing the 2019 Ravens and 2023 Orioles, might be uneasy heading into the postseason, especially since this year’s Ravens — like those two league-best teams previously mentioned — received a first-round bye.

“I can’t blame people for talking about it,” standout second-year safety Kyle Hamilton said this week of 2019. “Obviously, I wasn’t here, I don’t know too much of what happened, but we were first in the AFC and lost. That’s all people have to go off of right now besides the Ray Lewis [and] Ed Reed days.”

But if Ravens fans are anxious, it should be because, in a win-or-go-home playoff setting, anything can happen. Not because Baltimore has received a bye.

Some blamed the Orioles’ long break before the 2023 postseason for their being swept by the eventual World Series champion Texas Rangers, and some criticized the Ravens’ decision to rest key players, such as Jackson and star inside linebacker Roquan Smith, in last week’s meaningless game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, fearing they’d be out-of-rhythm come playoff time after a three-week hiatus from game action.

Posed with a question about the concept of “rust versus rest” — weighing the advantages of staying sharp as opposed to getting a break — coach John Harbaugh said “it’s not really about that.”

“I think we’re just going to have a great week of practice and try to get better in every single area,” he said.

Sure, the long break is unusual. After months of playing every week, Jackson’s first appearance in an NFL game in 2024 will come, at the earliest, Jan. 20. Asked Wednesday if he’s antsy to play, Jackson quickly nodded yes.

But unlike every other AFC team, the Ravens are guaranteed to advance to the divisional round, a blessing in the postseason. They won’t know their foe until after this weekend, but Harbaugh said it’s helpful to consider which of four possible opponents (the Cleveland Browns, Miami Dolphins, Pittsburgh Steelers or Houston Texans) they could face. What’s more, their risk for injury is low; while Jackson rested during Saturday’s game, Steelers star pass rusher T.J. Watt suffered a knee injury that will keep him out of a wild-card matchup against the No. 2 seed Buffalo Bills.

“Guys were banged up,” defensive lineman Justin Madubuike said of receiving a week of rest, “so it’s another great opportunity for them to get better.”

Bye weeks also give teams time to prepare. An NFL team with a first-round breather is likely to receive a “slight advantage,” according to Jeremy Foreman, a professor at Louisiana-Lafayette who has studied the effects of regular-season bye weeks on NFL teams.

Foreman has found that bye weeks are particularly advantageous when a team faces less familiar, nondivisional opponents. Each additional day of rest a team gets compared with a nondivisional foe is worth 0.37 points, Foreman has found. In the Ravens’ playoff scenario, that would result in a 2.6- to 3.0-point advantage.

“In other words, the bye week advantage is equivalent to about a field goal, when playing against a nondivision opponent,” Foreman wrote in an email to The Baltimore Sun.

Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson, center, watches from the sideline his back up plays against the Steelers in the fourth quarter. The Steelers beats the Ravens 17-10 at M&T Bank Stadium.. (Kenneth K. Lam/Staff photo)
Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson, center, was one of several players to rest during Saturday’s game against the Steelers. (Kenneth K. Lam/Staff)

The Ravens don’t yet know who they’ll face, which could limit their advantage, and they could very well face a familiar AFC North foe, dulling their edge. Plus, on-field success isn’t measured in 0.37-point increments, but rather in memorable plays that etch themselves into lore — whether in elation or anguish.

But still, at least from an empirical perspective, the Ravens ought to have a slight boost by resting this week.

As for the Ravens’ preparation this week, it mimed the rest of their dominant 2023 campaign. At Wednesday’s practice, there was receiver Odell Beckham Jr. snagging one-handed catches, safety Geno Stone fully participating after an injury scare Saturday, and then, in the locker room, team leader and Pro Bowl linebacker Roquan Smith personifying intensity, as per usual.

“Just a bunch of hungry dogs,” Smith said, describing the team’s mentality. “Like, have you ever been on a safari, [or] have you ever been in the wild and just seen cats that are trying to survive and trying to make their next meal? I feel like we have that mentality, and we know [that] if one gets a kill, we’re all going to share it, at the end of the day.”

Whether it’s Jackson’s health, Smith’s leadership and ferocity or a 0.37-points-per-day boost as evidenced by academic research, the Ravens seem to be on strong footing.

But no one can blame Baltimore fans for their anxiety. The sting of disappointment is too fresh and, as the 2019 Ravens and 2023 Orioles have shown, the postseason is a dangerous wilderness where regular-season wins are as meaningful as the Ravens’ Week 18 loss to the Steelers.

AFC divisional round

TBD at Ravens

Jan. 20-21, TBA


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