Jackson reaches peak brilliance in Ravens’ thrilling comeback win

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So much had gone wrong for the Ravens leading up to Lamar Jackson’s fumble at the 2-yard line with less than seven minutes to go in the third quarter on Monday night.

Initially returning the fumble for a touchdown before replay revealed a forward lateral, Indianapolis needed all of six plays to drive 81 yards for a score to increase its lead to 22-3 with 3:06 remaining in the third period. It very much looked like the rout was on.

The Baltimore defense had been mostly terrible, the non-Jackson running game was punchless, all three phases had made untimely mistakes, and an 0-for-5 start on third down before Jackson’s goal-line fumble had led to just three points against a Colts defense dealing with multiple injuries. There was no sugarcoating such an ugly showing at home against a one-win opponent, especially playing in front of the world on Monday Night Football.

At that point, it read like the kind of impossible script only Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes — until this season anyway — had shown the ability to navigate to a victory in recent years. But the Ravens still had hope with their own former NFL MVP coming off the second 300-yard passing day of his regular-season career at Denver a week earlier.

“You’re not giving up. First of all, we have Lamar Jackson,” head coach John Harbaugh said. “Next of all, we have a bunch of guys just like Lamar Jackson with heart, spirit, soul, persistence, and all the other things — faith. Faith and favor, man, they’re tied together.”

The favor came in the struggles of ailing Colts kicker Rodrigo Blankenship over the course of the night, but the rest was Jackson, who was about to reach the peak of passing brilliance — for him or any quarterback past or present — against an Indianapolis defense with no chance to stop him over Baltimore’s final four drives.

From the time he stepped back on the field after Jonathan Taylor’s 4-yard touchdown run late in the third quarter, Jackson went an astonishing 22-for-24 for 266 yards and four touchdowns. The passing assault began with a 43-yard touchdown bomb to Marquise Brown and continued with two fourth-quarter touchdown throws — and two 2-point conversions — to Mark Andrews to tie the game at 25-25 with 39 seconds to go.

Still, a bloodied Baltimore defense needed to make a stop to force overtime, but the closest Wink Martindale’s group had come to doing so in the second half was holding Indianapolis to a pair of field goal tries in the fourth quarter with the second being blocked by the 6-foot-8 Calais Campbell to keep the deficit at eight points with 4:29 remaining. This is when the favor Harbaugh had mentioned sure came in handy.

Continuing to make Colts quarterback Carson Wentz look like the former MVP candidate he was with Philadelphia four years ago, the Ravens immediately gave up a 23-yard completion to Parris Campbell to continue cornerback Anthony Averett’s nightmare performance. Moments later, nickel Tavon Young committed a senseless unnecessary roughness penalty in retaliation to a shove to the head from Indianapolis tight end Jack Doyle. Those gifted 15 yards followed by a 15-yard completion to Zach Pascal put the Colts in position for a 47-yard field goal try to win the game. The defense hadn’t done its job, but Blankenship missed wide left to send the game to an extra period.

You knew it was over when the Ravens won the coin toss to give the ball to Jackson to start the extra period. Deep down, Indianapolis had to know it too as “everything was just moving slow” for the quarterback as he described his late-game performance.

“There wasn’t a doubt in my mind,” said Jackson, who broke a single-game Ravens record that had stood for 25 years with his 442 passing yards. “Our team, we hit that peak that we needed at the right time [in] the second half, and we just knew it was one play at a time. That’s all we kept saying in the huddle.”

Going 6-for-6 for 48 yards and running twice to finish with a game-high 62 rushing yards, Jackson finished off overtime with a 5-yard touchdown to Brown to complete one of the greatest comebacks in Ravens history. The performance laughed in the face of doubts about what Jackson and the Ravens can do and be — in the regular season or come January and February.

Erasing a three-score deficit in the second half? Check.

Succeeding when forced to throw 40-plus times? Absolutely.

Getting next to no help from his defense and running game? No problem.

Monday night wasn’t the Ravens’ blueprint nor should it be moving forward, of course, but one of the critical questions about an offense that’s been so wildly successful in the regular season dating back to 2019 was its ability to play off-schedule and step outside its run-heavy comfort zone when necessary, a flaw that had been exposed in back-to-back divisional-round exits. Jackson looked very comfortable this time around — even if the Ravens would prefer not to continue leaning so heavily on his greatness and good fortune moving forward.

Make no mistake, Baltimore has earned its 4-1 record to take sole possession of first place in the AFC North, but it still doesn’t take much imagination to picture that record going the other direction with four of those five games coming down to the final seconds. Imagine if the Ravens were merely getting solid-to-good quarterback play instead of Jackson’s excellence with his arm and legs to open 2021.

“We don’t want to be in games like this. We would like to hit the ground running and keep it going,” Jackson said. “We don’t want to be battling, going to OT, hoping for field goal misses, hoping for field goal blocks, putting our defense out there with no points — stuff like that.

“Hopefully, we just hit the ground running and do what we’re supposed to do.”

Yes, the Ravens have much to correct on both sides of the ball on a short week before second-year quarterback sensation Justin Herbert and the Los Angeles Chargers come to town on Sunday. On the night Jackson broke Vinny Testaverde’s single-game franchise passing record, the defense played very much like those 1996 Ravens. Baltimore still hasn’t figured out the running game as its record-tying streak of 43 games of at least 100 rushing yards came to an end, and it didn’t help that the offensive line lost rookie left guard Ben Cleveland to a multi-week knee injury in Monday’s win. At least the Ravens don’t have to worry about their kicker, something Indianapolis — or a number of other teams around the league in Week 5 — couldn’t say.

Harbaugh called Jackson’s night one of the greatest performances he’s ever seen, a claim no one who watched would dispute as the Ravens scored 22 unanswered points to win. In the same way Hall of Famers Ray Lewis and Ed Reed did it on the other side of the ball years ago, the 24-year-old Jackson’s brilliance is making up for Baltimore’s deficiencies elsewhere.

“He’s ‘GOAT-ed,’ man. We’re just watching history right there,” said rookie outside linebacker Odafe Oweh, whose red-zone strip-sack in the first quarter proved critical. “It’s an honor to see that. He carried the team. He has the ‘no flinch’ mentality.”