It is not hard to measure your football team against all others at this stage of the season. Every team is a game out of first place – or last place – so these fourth quarters greatly separate the standings every week. And as the Baltimore Ravens return for two weeks of home cooking, this 2-1 outcome is particularly impressive given the historically awful fourth quarter last week against the undefeated Miami Dolphins being the only blemish in what has been solid early season football despite the roster deficiencies and mounting injuries.
You don’t want it too feel too easy, this going to Foxboro and coming home with a pelt.
Head coach John Harbaugh took the words out of my mouth when he mentioned this group has managed to manage the adversity, which came fast and furious once again on Sunday in a game that could’ve gone either way late in the afternoon in New England.
When Patriots wide receiver Nelson Agholor was YACing through the Ravens secondary with 5:35 remaining, after catching another ball down the center deep from quarterback Mac Jones, only the amazing stalk and strip by rookie safety Kyle Hamilton and the good fortune of Marcus Peters falling on the loose ball just before sliding out of bounds with clear (and however slight) possession of the pigskin rescued the men of Mike Macdonald. The modern Ravens defense has created a tradition of the “ball punch” and this time it ended the bad momentum Jones had created in beginning to tilt the field in the direction of Team Belichick in the fourth quarter of a 31-26 game.
Big players make big plays with the game on the line. When Eric DeCosta drafted the young Notre Dame safety first back in April, he envisioned winning road games behind that kind of effort and defensive chaos even after failing to make a play when the ball was in the air.
Make no mistake about it, this was a huge win for this mixed bag of imported veterans, tested Ravens stalwarts who lack playoff success and the newbies like Hamilton that are trying to make a name for themselves as young 20-somethings measuring themselves in Baltimore against the Ray Lewis and Ed Reed legend of big players making big plays at big times. You can add Rashod Bateman and Devin Duvernay and Justin Madubuike as other young guys beginning to stand out in the nascent 2022 campaign.
There are no bad road victories in the NFL. And winning anytime this century at Gillette Stadium is to be celebrated.
But don’t bury the lead in this one: Lamar Jackson (still) might be the best player in the National Football League and his “value” as a Most Valuable Player continues to soar as he does things no one has ever done at the most valuable position on the field and the most difficult position to play in all of sports. I know Steve Bisciotti doesn’t want to guarantee him 232 million American dollars but we’re clearly seeing that Jackson won’t back down – on or off the field.
His unique greatness and growth is now an “open for bidding” kind of display as the air grows grows chillier and his decisions, poise in the pocket, accuracy in delivering the ball and clear command of the position have been crystalized as he handles everything in front of him and gives the Ravens a chance to win late into every game, every week. And it doesn’t have to be with his wheels, as it appeared four years ago when his first blessed skill was his most reliable.
That’s not his total game now. It’s a threat and it’s always there – as evidenced by another skillful read and 39-yard scamper that Belichick spent all last week telling his guys to not allow. And that was before the touchdown run that nailed the coffin on the Patsies.
As it has been pointed out many times: schematically, there is no answer for Number Eight in space. He goes where his hips take him and what only his vision sees – and then you have to catch him.
Lamar is not always going to be perfect; he threw a terrible interception early in the game, just like last week when he squandered the ball at the goal line against the Dolphins at home. But five more touchdowns later, four in the air and one on the ground, and Lamar Jackson can expect those “MVP” chants when Josh Allen and the Bills arrive on Sunday for what felt like it might be a coronation before they went to Miami and melted in the heat while the Ravens were surviving New England. And then Joe Burrow will bring some Sunday Night madness to Baltimore for an obvious October power play for AFC North supremacy.
As Harbaugh pointed out, the Baltimore Ravens are getting fundamentally sound play at the quarterback position and world-class productivity despite forcing the best athlete in the sport to play behind the fourth-string left tackle and a running game that is still very-much a work in progress. It was good enough to win on the road in Foxborough on Sunday.
It’s winning football. The 39-13 record as a starter in the NFL doesn’t lie about the credentials of Lamar Jackson. But even the gaudiness of that stat doesn’t measure the improvement that is evident his game in his fifth season. Staying in the pocket. Accuracy. Seeing the field. Not relying solely on his legs. Actually hook sliding!
I’m not sure Lamar Jackson is gonna get Aaron Judge guaranteed money but he’ll allow no one to judge him at any point because he’s a moving – and somehow, still ascending – target. If he’s not the best quarterback in the NFL, he’s going to wake up tomorrow trying to be.
In the end, this was an old-school Ravens road victory – just the like the days of Joe Flacco and purple passed. The Ravens defense took the ball away. And Lamar Jackson made the Patriots pay with his arm, legs and his head.
The “Pay Lamar Jackson” crowd put more powder in the keg on Sunday.
But here comes Allen and Burrow and two teams that my suspicions suspect will be a factor in January if the Ravens plan on being in Arizona playing the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl 57.
The growth continues. The measurement continues. The judgment doesn’t come until early 2023 when this team should be uniquely positioned to be a factor in the NFL postseason.
The Baltimore Ravens are off to a good start.