Jackson leads Ravens to AFC’s top seed a year after uncertainty clouded his health and future

Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen (17) aims a pass during the first half of a game against the Miami Dolphins Sunday in Miami Gardens, Fla. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson passes against the San Francisco 49ers during the first half of a game in December in Santa Clara, Calif. (AP Photo/Godofredo A. Vásquez)

Lamar Jackson will miss out on wild-card weekend for a second straight year, and this time it’s for a much better reason.

The Baltimore Ravens and their star quarterback earned the AFC’s top playoff seed and the conference’s sole bye with a dominant regular-season run just one year after uncertainty clouded Jackson’s health and future.


Jackson missed the final five regular-season games and the playoffs a year ago because of a left knee injury, and Tyler Huntley started in his place when the Ravens lost to Cincinnati in a wild-card round game.

That was followed by months of doubt about Jackson’s status before he signed a five-year, $260 million contract extension with the Ravens, the $52 million-per-year pact briefly making him the NFL’s highest-paid player (before Joe Burrow and Justin Herbert surpassed him).

Jackson said back then that he’d suffered a Grade 2 sprain — moderate ligament damage and partial tearing — that was “on the borderline” of a Grade 3 sprain, which involves a complete ligament tear.

Instead of rehabbing like last year, Jackson will spend this year’s wild-card weekend resting after leading the Ravens to an NFL-best 13 wins, including blowouts of the 49ers and Dolphins.

The games kick off Saturday with the Cleveland Browns (11-6) visiting the Houston Texans (10-7) in a matchup of two of the four NFL teams (Lions, Jaguars) who have never appeared in a Super Bowl.

1. Baltimore Ravens (13-4)

Two Lombardi trophies in two Super Bowl appearances: beat Giants 34-7 in Super Bowl 35, beat 49ers 34-31 in Super Bowl 47. Last year: 10-7, No. 6 seed, lost 24-17 to Bengals in wild-card round.

Plan the parade: The Ravens have been excellent in all three phases this season. Their offense is led by MVP candidate Lamar Jackson and their special teams by perhaps the greatest kicker of all time in Justin Tucker. And the defense might be the team’s biggest strength, with LBs Roquan Smith and Patrick Queen, S Kyle Hamilton, DT Justin Madubuike and edge rushers Jadeveon Clowney and Kyle Van Noy all enjoying terrific seasons.

Hold the confetti: There’s some pressure on this team because the Ravens lost their playoff opener four seasons ago when they were also the top seed in the AFC.

2. Buffalo Bills (11-6)

No Lombardi trophies in four Super Bowl appearances: lost to Giants 20-19 in Super Bowl 25, lost to Washington 37-24 in Super Bowl 26, lost to Cowboys 52-17 in Super Bowl 27, lost to Cowboys 30-13 in Super Bowl 28. Last year: 13-3, No. 2 seed, beat Dolphins 34-31 in wild-card round, lost to Bengals 27-10 in divisional round.

Plan the parade: The Bills are the hottest team entering the postseason, having won five straight, are 5-1 against the playoff field and appear to have addressed their late-game issues from the first half of the season. After opening 2-6 in games decided by a touchdown or less, they closed 6-6. With QB Josh Allen, anything is possible with his dual-threat abilities to generate first downs and an NFL-leading 44 touchdowns (29 passing/15 rushing).

Hold the confetti: This is still the team that blew late leads in the final minute in losses to Philadelphia, New England and Denver, with a too-many-men flag giving Broncos kicker Wil Lutz a second chance to hit a game-winning field goal as time expired after he missed his first attempt. Dynamic as Allen has been, the quarterback can’t shake his turnover-prone ways.

3. Kansas City Chiefs (11-6)

Three Lombardi trophies in five Super Bowl appearances: lost to Packers 35-10 in Super Bowl 1, beat Vikings 23-7 in Super Bowl 4, beat 49ers 31-20 in Super Bowl 54, lost to Buccaneers 31-9 in Super Bowl 55, beat Eagles 38-35 in Super Bowl 57. Last year: No. 1 seed, beat Jaguars 27-20 in divisional round, beat Bengals 23-20 in AFC championship game.

Plan the parade: The Chiefs have been to three of the past four Super Bowls and won two of them, and many of the key names have been part of them all. That includes coach Andy Reid, QB Patrick Mahomes and TE Travis Kelce. But whereas the Chiefs of yesteryear were led by a dynamic offense that could score touchdowns on every play, this year’s team has been led by one of the stingiest defenses in the league.

Hold the confetti: The Chiefs led the NFL in dropped passes, they have been prone to penalties at inopportune times and they were minus-11 in turnover margin. In other words, they have been incredibly sloppy for a team that won an eighth straight AFC West title.

4. Houston Texans (11-6)

No Super Bowl appearances. Last year: 3-13-1.

Plan the parade: Almost no one outside the organization expected the Texans to return to the playoffs this season. They made a remarkable turnaround in large part because of the stellar play of rookie QB C.J. Stroud, the second overall pick in the 2023 draft out of Ohio State. Despite missing two games with a concussion, Stroud threw for 4,108 yards, the third-highest total ever by a rookie. He has 23 touchdown passes with just five interceptions.

Hold the confetti: Houston’s pass defense has been the team’s Achilles’ heel. The Texans rank 23rd in the league by giving up 234.1 yards passing a game. They have struggled to limit explosive plays in the passing game and often allow long TD receptions.

5. Cleveland Browns (11-6)

No Super Bowl appearances but won NFL championship games in 1950, 1954, 1955 and 1964 before the Super Bowl era began in the 1966 season. Last year: 7-10.

Plan the parade: Undaunted by numerous key injures since the opener, the Browns are in the postseason for just the third time since 1999. It’s their second visit in four years under coach Kevin Stefanski, who has established a positive culture for a franchise once awash in dysfunction.

Hold the confetti: Flacco’s magical ride could be all smoke and mirrors. He’s gotten away with some risky throws and Cleveland’s O-line has managed to protect him despite being without both starting tackles. A strong defensive front could change that with extreme pressure.

6. Miami Dolphins (11-6)

Two Lombardi trophies in five Super Bowl appearances: lost to Cowboys 24-3 in Super Bowl 6, beat Washington 14-7 in Super Bowl 7, beat Vikings 24-7 in Super Bowl 8, lost to Washington 27-17 in Super Bowl 17, lost to 49ers 38-16 in Super Bowl 19. Last year: 9-8, No. 7 seed, lost 34-31 to Bills in wild-card round.

Plan the parade: The Dolphins have had the NFL’s top-ranked offense all season behind Tua Tagovailoa and Tyreek Hill. Tagovailoa led the league in passing with a career-high 4,624 yards, and Hill was one of the NFL’s top deep threats with a league-best 1,799 yards and 13 TD receptions. Miami has been at its best when it has had a balanced offensive attack, which also featured the shifty, speedy running of Raheem Mostert and rookie De’Von Achane.

Hold the confetti: This team doesn’t have much recent playoff experience. The Dolphins have not won a playoff game since Dec. 30, 2000, when they beat the Colts in overtime.

7. Pittsburgh Steelers (10-7)

Six Lombardi trophies in eight Super Bowl appearances: beat Vikings 16-6 in Super Bowl 9, beat Cowboys 21-17 in Super Bowl 10, beat Cowboys 35-31 in Super Bowl 13, beat Rams 31-19 in Super Bowl 14, lost 27-17 to Cowboys in Super Bowl 30, beat Seahawks 21-10 in Super Bowl 40, beat Cardinals 27-23 in Super Bowl 43, lost 31-25 to Packers in Super Bowl 45. Last year: 9-8.

Plan the parade: The Steelers have been here before. Back in 2005, Pittsburgh entered the playoffs as the last seed in the AFC, won three road games before beating Seattle in the Super Bowl for the franchise’s fifth championship. That team had a big-armed QB (Ben Roethlisberger), a two-headed RB monster (Willie Parker and Jerome Bettis), a future Hall of Fame defender (Troy Polamalu) and got hot late in the season. This team has a big-armed QB (Mason Rudolph), a two-headed RB monster (Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren), a (possible) future Hall of Fame defender (T.J. Watt) and got hot late in the season.

Hold the confetti: Watt, who led the NFL in sacks for a third time, is out at least this week after injuring his left knee in the regular-season finale against Baltimore.

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