En route to clinching the first overall seed in the AFC, with one week left in the season, the Baltimore Ravens experienced a scare when Mark Ingram went down with a non-contact injury. After an MRI today, it was revealed Ingram suffered a calf strain. While the hope is he will return for the playoffs, the news comes with major negative ramifications. So much so, the Super Bowl now hinges on Ingram's calf.
Even if Ingram is ready for the Ravens' first playoff game, playing at the level he has been is just as realistic as re-injuring the calf. Calf strains have a history of lingering, and if Ingram is not at full strength, Baltimore cannot be the favorites to come out of the AFC.
Ingram's impact on this team exceeds his 1,018 rushing yards and 15 total touchdowns. The threat of Ingram is one of the primary reasons the option-based offense with soon-to-be MVP Lamar Jackson is so effective. Jackson and the Ravens' coaching staff deserve immense credit for the quarterback's year-over-year leap, but the signing of Ingram must be factored into that equation. Questioning Jackson at this point sounds absurd; however, it's not. Jackson has never faced pressure like he is about to next month, and it's unclear if he can sit back and throw Baltimore to the promised land absent of a dangerous running game behind him.
Jackson's joyful postgame reaction to learning Ingram eclipsed 1,000 rushing yards shows it all. Ingram has been Jackson's biggest supporter, his rock, his MVP hype man. Ingram's presence isn't only felt on the field, as Jackson describes, the fellow Heisman Trophy winner as the “heart of the team."
Before Ingram's injury, the Ravens were the best team in the NFL and the safest Super Bowl bet. But even before, it was by inches.
After a season stuffed with injuries, the Kansas City Chiefs are getting healthy and are back to last year's frightening form. In fact, they are better suited for a playoff run this year given the team's defensive momentum. Over the past four weeks, the Chiefs' defense is allowing an average of only 7.75 points per game. That goes along with the one quarterback that is more terrifying than Jackson, Patrick Mahomes. As explosive as the Ravens' offense is, pound-for-pound, the the Chiefs' is better. And while some sports fans have already set their schedules for for a Chiefs-Patriots showdown in the Divisional Round, a Chiefs-Ravens matchup remains a real possibility, as Kansas City could still fall to the fourth seed (Chiefs lose to Chargers, Texans beat Titans).
Having to beat the Chiefs or Patriots with a hobbled Ingram is already worrisome but if they have to beat both, it turns into daunting and no longer probable. New England did just show they will have to again be dealt with this past weekend in an impressive win over the Bills.
With a fully healthy team, the Ravens also matched up well with the potential NFC Super Bowl opponents. But with such a tight margin, any limitation like Ingram's injury could be the difference and skew it the other way.
After Ingram went down, his backups, Gus Edwards and Justice Hill, performed well. But that was against the Browns, with no pressure, in a game that was already won. It's inconvenience for the Ravens to expect either to give them 70 percent of what Ingram has this season.
The results of non-contact injuries can be far worse than a calf strain, but Ravens' fans should caution their sighs of relief this afternoon. It was good news, but, at the same time, possibly season-damaging news.