ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. – Ravens coach John Harbaugh was immediately impressed by Buffalo quarterback Josh Allen’s competitive fire following their first face-to-face encounter in an NFL setting.
It happened in the 2018 season opener, when the then-raw rookie Bills quarterback was shoved into the Ravens' sideline. Allen hopped up and exchanged words with players and Harbaugh before officials stepped in to separate everyone.
“He came up jawing and talking and shoving and pushing,” Harbaugh recalled as fifth-seeded Baltimore (12-5) prepares to face the AFC East champion Bills (14-3) in a divisional playoff Saturday night. “Rookie quarterback. Man, I love this guy.”
Allen was only in the game for mop-up duty after Nate Peterman was benched upon throwing his second interception, which led to the Ravens building a 40-0 lead in an eventual 47-3 victory.
What struck Harbaugh is how Allen refused to back down, a quality he also sees in Baltimore's Lamar Jackson, who also made his NFL debut that day as Joe Flacco’s backup.
“They’ve come up on the quote-unquote other side of the tracks from a football perspective where they came up the hard way, doubted often, and had to overcome that,” Harbaugh said. “I always like the underdog.”
Allen, whom the Bills traded up five spots to select No. 7 in the 2018 draft, had accuracy issues and was dismissed for playing at lowly regarded Wyoming. Jackson, selected 32nd in 2018, was questioned as to whether the dynamic mobility he showed at Louisville would translate to the NFL.
Three seasons later, both are coming off their first career playoff victories and have their teams one win short of appearing in the AFC championship game.
Jackson made his splash last season when he earned NFL MVP honors after leading the NFL with 36 touchdown passes, 43 combined TDs and became the league’s first player to top 3,000 yards passing and 1,000 rushing.
And yet, Jackson failed to silence his critics because he was 0-2 in the playoffs before a 20-13 win at Tennessee last weekend. It was a game in which the Ravens overcame a 10-0 deficit — their largest in a playoff victory — with Jackson sparking the comeback with an electrifying 48-yard touchdown run.
One win isn’t enough.
“We know how it feels to be hyped up and we know how it feels to be at your lowest point,” Jackson said. “We’re focused on Buffalo and we’re not trying to let the outside noise or anything like that distract us.”
Allen blossomed into a star this season by setting numerous franchise passing and scoring records, while finishing fourth in the NFL in completing 69.2% of his passes — a 10.45% jump over last year.
An NFL MVP candidate, Allen is the key reason the Bills matched a franchise record in winning 13 regular-season games and clinched their first division title in 25 years.
Allen benefitted from spending three years being groomed by offensive coordinator Brian Daboll, and the influx of talent brought in by GM Brandon Beane. The most notable addition this offseason was acquiring Stefon Diggs in a trade with Minnesota.
Much like Jackson, Allen prefers putting the past behind him and focusing on the next challenge.
And yet, he remembered his encounter with Harbaugh, and noted how the two laughed about it the following April when they bumped into each other at The Masters.
“My first game, yeah. I’ve changed a lot since then. My mannerisms and my temper’s a little different than it was back in the day,” Allen said. “I don’t forget those days. They’ve helped me get to where I am.”
Baltimore has been playing with a win-or-done urgency since early December, following a 1-4 skid that dropped it to 6-5.
The Ravens were depleted by a COVID-19 outbreak in a 19-14 loss at Pittsburgh before reeling off six consecutive wins.
“We’ve had our backs against the wall since the Pittsburgh game,” Harbaugh said. “I really think our guys have handled everything exceptionally well.”
Buffalo is without rookie running back Zack Moss, who sustained a season-ending ankle injury last weekend. Coach Sean McDermott said T.J. Yeldon will take over the role behind Devin Singletary. The seventh-year player has just 70 yards on 10 carries, and hasn't played since Oct. 13.
Baltimore accomplished its objective in limiting the NFL's leading rusher, Tennessee's Derrick Henry, to 40 yards on 18 attempts.
Now the Ravens turn their attention to having contain the league's leading receiver in Diggs.
“I feel like we have some of the top run-stoppers in the league up front, and we have some of the top corners on the outside, as well," Baltimore safety Chuck Clark said. "It’s a matchup league, and it’s a matchup game. So, I like our matchups.”
The Ravens are only the third team in NFL history to have three players top 700 yards rushing in a single season with Jackson (1,005 yards), rookie J.K. Dobbins (805) and Gus Edwards (723).
The Bills limited the Ravens to only 118 yards rushing in last year’s meeting, a 24-17 Ravens win. Buffalo, however, has allowed 150 yards rushing five times this season, one more than the past two combined.
Harbaugh and McDermott were members of Andy Reid's coaching staff with the Eagles in the 2000s, and both remain close.
So close, in fact, Harbaugh kidded McDermott upon recalling being introduced to his future wife in Philadelphia.
“I'm like, 'Oh man, I don't know how you pulled this off,'" Harbaugh said. “He married way out of his league.”
AP Sports Writer David Ginsburg contributed.
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