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Ravens-Buccaneers Week 15: Three Key Matchups

December 13, 2018
WHO: Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5-8) at Baltimore Ravens (7-6)
WHERE: M&T Bank Stadium
WHEN: Sunday, Dec. 16, 2018, 1 p.m. EST

The Ravens have to quickly regroup after suffering a 27-24 overtime loss to the Kansas City Chiefs Dec. 9, as they continue to cling to the sixth and final AFC playoff spot and remain just a half-game out of the AFC North lead. 

As the Ravens officially usher in the Lamar Jackson era -- the rookie has been declared the starting quarterback instead of a healthy Joe Flacco -- here are three key matchups to watch: 

Ravens DL Michael Pierce vs. Buccaneers C Ryan Jensen

These two locked horns on the practice field for two years as Ravens teammates, and Pierce noted that they were workout partners last season. Pierce has had a strong year in the middle of the Ravens' defense, with 24 tackles, including a season-high six at Kansas City last week. He has been at the heart of a Ravens run defense that ranks No. 4 in the league.

After five seasons with the Ravens, Jensen cashed in this past offseason with a four-year, $42 million free-agent deal with the Buccaneers and has started every game this season. Jensen, who has been known to play past the whistle, has been as feisty as ever with his new team; he has been flagged four times this year for unnecessary roughness. 

Ravens CB Jimmy Smith or CB Marlon Humphrey vs. Buccaneers WR Mike Evans

Smith has come on strong during the past month, delivering excellent performances against high-powered passing attacks of the Atlanta Falcons and Chiefs the past two weeks. Smith tied a career-high with nine tackles against the Chiefs, and he and Humphrey clamped down on Atlanta's Julio Jones two weeks ago, holding the Pro Bowl receiver to two catches for 18 yards. Humphrey, though, continues to be bothered by a groin injury that limited him against the Chiefs. 

Evans is the No. 1 option for a Buccaneers passing game that ranks No. 1 in the league with 331.4 yards a game. The 6-foot-5, former first-round pick has 70 catches for 1,207 yards -- sixth-most in the league -- and five touchdowns. 

Ravens WR Willie Snead vs. Buccaneers CB Javien Elliott

The Ravens' ground game has been their forte since Jackson became the starting quarterback, but if Jackson plans to take to the air more, this might be the game to do it: Opposing quarterbacks against the Bucs have a passer rating of 112.1, the highest in the league. Snead remains the Ravens' leader in catches with 56, and Jackson is likely to concentrate in the short-to-intermediate range where Snead does most of his work. Don't discount Snead's work as a run blocker, either.

Elliott has risen from the practice squad to become a key part of the Bucs' nickel defense, so he figures to match up against Snead in passing situations, though it will be curious to see how much nickel defense the Bucs play against this Ravens ground-and-pound offense. Elliott recorded his first interception during the Bucs' 24-17 win against Carolina Dec. 2.

PREDICTION

The Ravens face a Buccaneers team that is susceptible through the air, and the improving Jackson will take some shots, but they will continue to lean on their ground game, especially if the weather is rainy as predicted. It's understandable if the Ravens come out flat after the emotional loss at Kansas City, but the Ravens know what is at stake, and at home, they will have enough. Ravens 23, Bucs 19. 

Follow Bo on Twitter @bsmolka

Photo Credit: Kenya Allen/PressBox