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Ravens Insider: Mike Preston: QBs rule the NFL playoffs. Bring on Lamar Jackson vs. C.J. Stroud. | COMMENTARY


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It’s time for the C.J. Stroud vs. Lamar Jackson showdown.

Pro football is the ultimate team game, but the postseason belongs to the quarterbacks. It’s part of NFL history and it was repeated last week in the wild-card round.

Jordan Love completed 16 of 21 passes for 272 yards and three touchdowns as the Green Bay Packers routed the Dallas Cowboys, 48-32. Patrick Mahomes looked like the best quarterback in the league again as he completed 23 of 41 passes for 262 yards to lead the Kansas City Chiefs over the Miami Dolphins, 26-7. Josh Alllen was 21-for-30 for 203 yards and three touchdowns in the Buffalo Bills’ 31-17 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers. Even Baker Mayfield threw for 337 yards and three touchdowns as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers crushed the Philadelphia Eagles, 32-9.

That set the stage for Saturday’s divisional round game between the No. 4 seed Houston Texans (11-7) and the No. 1 Ravens (13-4) at M&T Bank Stadium.

In one huddle, we have Stroud, the No. 2 overall pick in the draft and former Ohio State star who has already made a name for himself. In the other is Jackson, the presumptive NFL Most Valuable Player who is trying to cement his legacy not only in Baltimore, but throughout the NFL.

The question is, which quarterback will make the most big plays?

The odds are in Jackson’s favor. He is driven by the fact that the Ravens have yet to win more than one playoff game during his time in Baltimore, even though he has missed the end of the previous two seasons with injuries.

But the injuries don’t hide the fact that Jackson hasn’t played well in the postseason. He has struggled to throw accurately downfield and outside the numbers, especially when opposing defenses stacked the line of scrimmage.

The Ravens brought in Todd Monken to replace Greg Roman as the offensive coordinator in February to upgrade the passing game and continue Jackson’s development. It has worked out well. The Ravens also signed free agent wide receivers Odell Beckham Jr. (35 catches, 565 yards, three touchdowns) and Nelson Agholor (35 catches, 381 yards, 4 TDs) during the offseason and drafted Boston College receiver Zay Flowers (77 catches, 858 yards, 5 TDs) with their top pick in April.

Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson warms up before Sunday's game against the Dolphins at M&T Bank Stadium. (Jerry Jackson/Staff)
Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson threw for a career-high 3,678 yards and 24 touchdowns with only seven interceptions this season. (Jerry Jackson/Staff)

Jackson responded by throwing for a career-high 3,678 yards and 24 touchdowns with only seven interceptions. He had the fourth-best passer rating (102.7) in the league and a career-best completion rate of 67.2%.

Jackson also led the Ravens in rushing with 821 yards on 148 carries and averaged an NFL-best 5.5 yards per attempt. That’s what makes him special.

Despite the new passing concepts, philosophies and audibles, the team’s best play is still Jackson ad libbing, running around and giving his receivers time to get open.

Jackson is also driven by another factor. If he loses Saturday, he will be lumped into the same category as Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott, who has a 2-5 postseason record. Jackson is 1-3.

The Ravens signed Jackson to a five-year, $260 million deal last April. He should be focused and ready for the Texans. Houston is certainly ready for Jackson.

“Yeah, obviously at the forefront of what we have to do this week, he is a great athlete,” Texans defensive coordinator Matt Burke said about Jackson. “He has a great feel in the pocket, he does a great job of escaping, breaking tackles — all those things. It’s going to be sort of like we’ve preached all year, but even at a heightened level of rushing as a unit. We can’t have independent contractors out there.

“It’s definitely going to be about guys staying in their rush areas. If you get out of your area and out of your lane, and kind of where we’re trying to put it all together, if you get out, then he’s going to make you pay. So, I would probably say just from a discipline — a rush discipline level — this is the ultimate [challenge] this week, for sure.”

The 6-foot-3, 218-pound Stroud isn’t as elusive as the 6-2, 212-pound Jackson. No one is, but Stroud is slightly bigger and can rifle a pass. He is mobile enough to escape pressure and, like Jackson, allows his receivers time to get open.

There doesn’t appear to be a game too big for this rookie. He completed 63.9% of his passes for 4,108 yards and 23 touchdowns during the regular season with only five interceptions. He finished with a passer rating of 100.8 and ranked fourth in the NFL with 19 completions of 20-plus yards on third down.

Stroud was better in the fourth quarter, throwing for 1,093 yards with nine touchdowns, which put him in the top six in the league. He did it largely without two of his top receivers in rookie Tank Dell and Noah Brown, who are both on injured reserve.

Nico Collins has emerged as the Texans’ top receiver with 80 catches for 1,297 yards and eight touchdowns. He has great range and his 6-4, 215-pound frame makes him a big target inside the red zone. But the running game, paced by Devin Singletary, is only slightly above average, even though Houston has the best left tackle in the NFL in Laremy Tunsil.

The focus will be on Stroud.

“He can make any throw from any part of the field,” Ravens safety Geno Stone said. “He has that big arm, and he’s playing smart with the ball. He’s not putting the ball in jeopardy, so he’s making plays for his guys and being smart with the ball. That’s my biggest takeaway from [watching] him.”

The Ravens, though, counter with a defense that is ranked No. 6 overall, allowing 301.4 yards per game, including 191.9 through the air. They lead the league in scoring defense (16.5 points per game) and sacks (60) and are tied with the New York Giants for the most takeaways (31).

Houston is ranked No. 14 in total defense, allowing 330.7 yards per game and are ranked No. 23 in pass defense. The Texans have solid pass rushers in defensive ends Jonathan Greenard (12 1/2 sacks) and rookie Will Anderson Jr. (eight). They have two respectable cornerbacks in Derek Stingley Jr. and Steven Nelson, who each have five interceptions, but their safeties can be exploited and Jackson should be able to hit on some deep passes.

That puts the pressure back on Jackson, but it’s Stroud who’s playing in only his second playoff game. He had a good performance last week, completing 16 of 21 passes for 274 yards and three touchdowns in a 45-14 win against Cleveland, but the Ravens aren’t the stumbling, bumbling Browns.

This is a good matchup. It’s Stroud vs. Jackson. Or is it Jackson vs. Stroud?

Either way, it’s on.

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