When the schedule was announced last April, the thought was that this Sunday's game in Baltimore would be a playoff tune-up for the Jaguars, and a play-out-the-string game for the Ravens, who were coming off a 5-11 season and would be installing the quarterback of their future in 2008. Well, the NFL is nothing if not unpredictable.
The Jaguars will close their 2008 season at M&T Bank Stadium against a Ravens team that will claim the sixth and final AFC playoff spot with a win over the Jaguars.
"You're going to see people everywhere wearing their Raven purple. It's a great atmosphere. There is a love affair with the Ravens. They really love their football team in Baltimore. It's going to be a very festive atmosphere," Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio said.
The Jaguars, of course, will have a chance to spoil the festivities, but it will require a massive physical effort on their part to do so. The Ravens play the toughest brand of football in the league. They are number two in rushing and number two in overall defense. The passing game continues to lag, but that's largely the result of having a defense that allows the Ravens to protect rookie quarterback Joe Flacco by not asking him to do more than what's necessary.
"I think it's been proven in this league that if you play great defense and you can run the ball, you're going to put yourself into position to win a lot of games. I think the next step is to have a quarterback that can make plays. I think they have a good, young guy there," Del Rio said.
Flacco was the player the Ravens had in mind when they consummated a draft-day trade with the Jaguars that allowed the Jaguars to move up 18 spots and select defensive end Derrick Harvey. The Ravens moved down, got a lot of extra draft picks, and then traded back up to 18 to select Flacco.
The rookie from Delaware has responded by throwing for 2,674 yards and 14 touchdowns, on a team that is by far number one in the league in time of possession. His passer rating, however, has dipped in recent weeks, giving rise to concerns about hitting the mythical rookie "wall."
With Flacco at the helm, the Ravens have gone from 5-11 and a loss in Miami that was the Dolphins' only win of the year last season, to 10-5 and on the cusp of an 11-5 turnaround that would catapult the Ravens into the postseason. The Jaguars, of course, were 11-5 last season and are now in danger of a 5-11 reversal.
"I think it really gives you a good test, to be able to say, 'You know what, we stack up with these guys. We can knock off a potential playoff team. Like I said, just finish the season strong and finish it with a smile on your face, going into the offseason knowing you finished on a good note and you have things to prepare for and look forward to for the future," Jaguars quarterback David Garrard said.
Clearly, the Jaguars' mettle will be at the test against Ray Lewis and company.
"There is no question that environment, that experience is valuable. I think getting a feel for that is good in the long run. Going and playing well and winning in that environment is best. That's our task, that's our goal, that's what we're preparing for. It'll be fun. If you like to compete, as you know I do, it'll be a good environment," Del Rio said.