We saw a different Lamar Jackson in the Ravens’ 34-17 win over Dallas on Tuesday night.
It wasn’t his best game, but the weight of a season that began with such high expectations and has instead brought so many challenges seemingly washed away in a three-touchdown performance. The 23-year-old appeared to be having fun at a 2019-like level again, describing his return from a taxing bout with COVID-19 as a “joyful time” akin to starting a new season.
The impact went beyond his 94 rushing yards or an unspectacular 107-yard passing night.
“It seemed like on all my runs that I broke, he was right there,” said running back Gus Edwards, who finished with 101 of Baltimore’s season-high 294 rushing yards. “When I turned around, he was just excited. He was running down the field. He was cheering his teammates on. He was real vocal on the sideline. You could tell he missed the game through that [first] practice, and then through the game. He was just excited.”
Of course, beating up on the lowly Cowboys at home isn’t the same as a Monday trip to Cleveland to take on a Browns team that’s already clinched its first winning record in 13 years under rookie head coach Kevin Stefanski. It’s easy to be upbeat when you’re preying on inferior teams, but the ability of Jackson and the 2020 Ravens to handle adversity had come into question long before the COVID-19 outbreak that brought the organization to its knees.
In Week 14, there’s much on the line for both teams.
Most analytics websites currently project at least an 85-percent chance of 9-3 Cleveland punching its ticket to the postseason for the first time since 2002. This comes on the heels of the Browns’ most impressive win of the season, a 41-35 final at Tennessee in which they scored 38 points in the first half. Still, Cleveland — like the Ravens — owns just two victories over teams with winning records this season.
Meanwhile, the 7-5 Ravens are fighting to remain on a clear path to the postseason after snapping a three-game losing streak in Week 13 and losing four of six games coming out of their bye week. Outlets differ on their current playoff chances — ranging from roughly a coin flip to just under 70 percent — but winning out all but guarantees a trip to January for the third straight year. A defeat to the Browns would drop their postseason chances from the current 51 percent to roughly 24 percent, according to the New York Times playoff simulator.
In other words, the Ravens would need some real help in addition to winning their final three games just to qualify, which is never a place a team wants to be. The playoff ramifications are evident for both teams – the same simulator puts Cleveland’s postseason chances at over 99 percent with a Monday win – but there’s also no shortage of psychology at work for both teams.
The Browns are 9-3 and in the midst of a four-game winning streak, but their minus-15 point differential makes them a hard sell as a serious Super Bowl contender. Two of those three defeats have come to the Ravens and Pittsburgh by an embarrassing 76-13 margin, leaving them without any bragging rights or a signature win within the AFC North.
For the Ravens, Monday presents a chance for Jackson and the passing game to revisit their high-water mark of 2020 when the reigning NFL MVP completed 20 of 25 passes for 275 yards, three touchdowns, and a 152.1 passer rating in the 38-6 season-opening win over the Browns. The sensational performance earned him the AFC Offensive Player of the Week award – something he won five times in 2019 – and prompted many to suggest Jackson would be an even better passer than he was a year ago.
“The first game, it was like, ‘Man, we’ve got to go out here and just focus on our assignments; everyone do their job,’” said Jackson, who’s posted 14 touchdown passes, seven interceptions, and an ordinary 88.2 passer rating since then. “And that’s what we did. We drove the ball down the field, we scored points, and that’s what we’ve got to do this Monday — same thing. Just focus, everyone do their assignments, and I feel we’ll be good.”
Both teams are in a different place from that meeting three months ago. The Ravens have regressed offensively and no longer have that aura from a year ago when it felt like some opponents were defeated before the game even started. Despite that blowout Week 1 loss, the Brown have “definitely come into their own” with a robust rushing attack, a strong offensive line, and an improved Baker Mayfield no longer making “willy-nilly” throws and interceptions, according to nose tackle Brandon Williams.
You’d be hard-pressed to name a more important Ravens-Browns game for both teams in a 22-year series history too one-sided to call a rivalry. For the Browns, it’s a chance to cement their playoff position and finally stand up to one of the AFC North powers that have embarrassed them for the better part of two decades. The Ravens are trying to put their November struggles and COVID-19 outbreak behind them for good while maintaining their grip on the steering wheel to the playoffs.
But it won’t be easy for John Harbaugh’s team against an opponent with much more confidence this time around.
“I said after the season opener that that was a good football team, and a lot of you [media] guys just rolled your eyes as I recall,” said Harbaugh as he then chuckled. “It was pretty easy to see where they were going and what they were building.”
Monday should give us a better idea of whether Jackson and the Ravens are back to building something with the chance to be special or merely enjoyed a fun diversion against Dallas.