Saturday's tandem of games to kick off the penultimate week of the 2018 regular season are chock-full of playoff implications. Here's what to watch for in the Washington Redskins at Tennessee Titans and Baltimore Ravens at Los Angeles Chargers matchups, both of which will be shown exclusively on NFL Network:
Ravens (8-6): Will Lamar Jackson carry the Ravens into the playoffs? Since taking over for the injured Joe Flacco at quarterback and hanging onto the job in the wake of Flacco's return, Baltimore has surged into the AFC playoff picture. With the rookie signal-caller under center, Baltimore is 4-1. Those four wins, however, came against sub-.500 competition (Bengals, Raiders, Falcons, Buccaneers). His one loss was in a nail-biter against the Kansas City Chiefs. The Chargers figure to offer a very difficult test, but one that's passable if Jackson and the Ravens play to their strengths. Since Jackson took over as QB, Baltimore ranks first in the NFL in rushing yards per game (230.4), rushing first downs (66) and carries over 10 yards (28), per NFL Research. They've rushed for more than 190 yards in five straight games -- the third-longest streak of the Super Bowl era. Rookie Gus Edwards (486) and Jackson (427) rank fourth and fifth, respectively, in NFL rushing since Week 11. Against the Chargers, they'll face a defense that has only allowed two 100-yard rushers this season (Joe Mixon and Todd Gurley). If the Ravens can continue to find success in the run game and their league-best defense shuts down the Philip Rivers-Melvin Gordon one-two offensive punch, they could continue to hold onto the AFC's No. 6 playoff seed. A Ravens win won't clinch them a playoff berth, but a loss would hand a playoff berth to the Houston Texans on Saturday night and help the Pittsburgh Steelers' efforts to claim the AFC North crown.
Chargers (11-3): Los Angeles is already heading to the postseason for the first time since 2013, but it's still in the race for the AFC West title. Helping the Chargers' cause will be the anticipated return of Melvin Gordon, who missed the last three games because of a knee injury. Due to its current divisional record (3-2 vs. the Chiefs' 4-1), Los Angeles holds the AFC's No. 5 playoff seed. The Chargers need to win their final games against the Ravens and Denver Broncos and hope the Chiefs drop a game in order to claim the AFC's top seed, where the conference's last five Super Bowl teams have sprouted from. The key for the Chargers will be finding a way to break the Ravens' top-ranked defense that ranks third against the rush and pass. While Gordon might be back on the field, there's no guarantee he'll be playing at his normal level. Rivers, however, is putting up an MVP-caliber season with age-bedeviling performances. His comeback effort against the Chiefs last week in the Mike Williams breakout game was one of the most memorable games of his career. Rivers, per NFL Research, is posting career-highs in passing yards per attempt (8.8), TD-INT ratio (31-8), passer rating (112.4) and giveaways (9) amid throwing for 3,951 yards and 31 touchdowns. Getting to Rivers likely will be critical for the Ravens. Rivers has the third-largest decrease is passer rating (-21.8) when blitzed against, per Next Gen Stats. Baltimore's defense blitzes at the fourth-highest rate in the NFL (36.7).
Redskins (7-7):Josh Johnson was a winning QB for the first time in his 31-game career last week, but the Titans aren't the Jacksonville Jaguars. Washington's win kept them in the NFC playoff chase, but they'll need to win both of their remaining games and get some help from the teams ahead of them to land a postseason berth. The Redskins sit eighth in the NFC playoff picture behind the Philadelphia Eagles, who own the tiebreaker. Against Tennessee's seventh-ranked defense, Washington will need more offensive production than they had against the Jaguars. Adrian Peterson has struggled to replicate the success he had in September and October. In the first two months of the season, he averaged 105.4 scrimmage yards per game in comparison to the 55.0 he's averaged since the start of November. His yards per touch also has dropped from 5.4 to 3.7, according to NFL Research. Much of his statistical dropoff has to do with the injuries the team has suffered on the offensive line in addition to the season-ending broken leg Alex Smith suffered. With Peterson the biggest star of the offense, teams have zeroed in on shutting him down. That means Washington's defense almost certainly will have to keep Marcus Mariota and Derrick Henry from picking them apart in order to have a chance. Injuries also have dulled the effectiveness of Washington's defense in recent games -- last week's win over Jacksonville marked the first time it managed to hold a team under 20 points since Week 10 when it still gave up 501 total yards in a win over the Bucs. Asking for the Johnson-Peterson combo to spearhead a 20-point scoring effort likely would be too much for the veteran duo.
Titans (8-6):Derrick Henry might be chasing some history on Saturday, but the Titans are pursuing a playoff berth. Tennessee enters the game sitting eighth in the AFC playoff race amid a three-game winning streak. Wins over the Redskins and the Colts would greatly enhance their chances of returning to the postseason in consecutive seasons for the first time 2008. Henry's performances over the last two games has played a vital part in the Titans' recent resurgence. The former Heisman Trophy winner has rushed for 408 yards and six touchdowns over the last two games, becoming the first player to rush for 170-plus yards and two or more TDs since Hall of Famer LaDainian Tomlinson achieved the feat in 2006. He also has an amazing 372 yards after contact and 18 forced missed tackles over the last two games. If he tallies 240 yards against the Redskins -- a huge if -- Henry would break O.J. Simpson's mark for most rushing yards over a three-game span (647). His freight train-like runs have helped bolster a Tennessee offense that's been underwhelming most of the season. Tennessee ranks 27th in total offense (317.8 YPG) and Mariota has struggled to ignite a 30th-ranked passing offense (187 YPG). Defensively, first-year head coach Mike Vrabel is running things right. Tennessee ranks first in red-zone percentage allowed (42.1), points per game allowed (18.1) and fifth in third-down percentage allowed (34.8). While the Titans are the favorites in this one, they can't afford to stumble -- a loss would decimate their playoff chances and secure a postseason berth for the Texans.