CLEVELAND — If this, the Year of Lamar Jackson, indeed ended Sunday for Lamar Jackson, with a 31-15 win over the Cleveland Browns clinching home-field advantage for the first time in franchise history, this is how the Ravens quarterback will remember it: 13-2.
The NFL’s Most Valuable Player — and he certainly is that — has in his second year become a stat-sheet stuffer, fantasy football legend and treasured leader for the AFC’s (and probably the NFL’s) top team. Every week seems to bring a new record, a new level of respect. Teammates love Jackson for how he cares; fans love him for how he plays; arithmophiliacs no doubt love him for the numbers he generates.
But what Jackson cherished, at least publicly, in front of a lectern inside FirstEnergy Stadium, was not his 36-touchdown, six-interception season, a mark with elite peers in NFL history. It was not his fifth 100-yard rushing game this season, or any other superlative stats. It was that, through 16 record-breaking weeks, the Ravens have won 13 games and lost just twice. And being 13-2 affords you certain privileges.
With the Ravens’ 11th straight victory Sunday, which extended their franchise-record winning streak against the last team to beat them, against the AFC North squad that had been the NFL’s offseason darling, coach John Harbaugh faces the kind of questions that every coach hopes for in Week 17. The Pittsburgh Steelers are headed for M&T Bank Stadium on Sunday, and “the emphasis,” Harbaugh said, “is going to be on winning the football game.”
But the Ravens also have done enough of that to not rue a Week 17 loss. A 14th win would be a franchise record, but it would not change their playoff trajectory. They’ve secured a first-round bye for the first time since 2011; all they can do now is prepare for the divisional round however they see fit.
“It feels good,” Harbuagh said after the Ravens’ franchise-record seventh road win this season. “It’s a big accomplishment. I think the players deserve a tremendous amount of credit for it, because it’s hard. It’s difficult, it’s challenging, to win a game in the National Football League. When you put together the kind of season that these players have put together, it’s quite an accomplishment. It’s probably the best regular season in the National Football League this year by any team, and we still have another game to play, which we still take very seriously.”
Seriously enough to, say, bring Jackson out for one last encore before the playoffs? Jackson said he hoped to play but deferred to the coaching staff. Harbaugh said he hadn’t made up his mind; he still needs to consult with the team’s veterans and coaches. Whether he even announces Jackson’s availability for Sunday is uncertain.
There are more pressing matters in Baltimore. Running back Mark Ingram II, who with Jackson became the seventh duo in NFL history to rush for 1,000 yards apiece, suffered a calf injury in the fourth quarter and did not return. Harbaugh said the calf is structurally sound and that the team would know more by Monday. Tight end Mark Andrews, who was also hobbled for part of Sunday’s win but still finished with six catches for 93 yards, including the Ravens’ first two touchdowns, rolled his ankle. Afterward, he said he was healthy.
The Ravens’ early clinch and wild-card-round bye should be a balm. The team has leaned on veterans like guard Marshal Yanda and defensive backs Jimmy Smith, Brandon Carr and Earl Thomas III, all 30 years or older, throughout the season. Rookie wide receiver Marquise “Hollywood” Brown could do with some time off; defensive tackle Brandon Williams and outside linebacker Matthew Judon, too.
“We are a heavy running team, so physical games every Sunday,” said Yanda, who at age 35 has started every game at right guard this season. “That week of rest is going to be huge. Obviously, playing at home, we don’t have to travel. We don’t have to get on an airplane. We are right in our backyard. That is where we want to be, and it is definitely an advantage.”
“We’ve been battling all season,” Jackson said. “We just got to find ourselves some more.”
It didn’t matter that Jackson couldn’t find the keys to the Ravens’ Porsche of an offense until after the first half’s two-minute warning. When they needed to shift into fifth gear, they got there and mostly stayed there.
After the Ravens were held scoreless over their first four possessions for the first time all season — Cleveland (6-9) had been one of just two defenses to blank them over their first two drives — Jackson needed two throws to get the Ravens their first touchdown. He got the ball back a minute later and needed seven plays to go 75 yards and find Andrews in the end zone again.
As Jackson and this offense have shown again and again, they can go fast and the can go slow. They can run and pass. They can produce in the sun or in the rain. So after scoring 14 points in a span of 1:41, sending the Browns off to a halftime chorus of boos and so incensing their fans that they stood and showed general manager John Dorsey’s stadium box their favorite finger, the Ravens took a 21-6 lead, naturally, with patience.
Their 13-play, 69-yard drive to open the third quarter ate up nearly half of the period and ended with Jackson finding Ingram on a 12-yard check-down pass that led him to the end zone. Only one Ravens running back, Ray Rice (15 in 2011), has as many total touchdowns as Ingram does this season. Only two quarterbacks, Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady, have ever finished a season with at least 36 touchdowns and six or fewer interceptions.
“What more do you need to say?” Harbaugh said of Jackson, who on Sunday also broke Vinny Testaverde’s single-season franchise mark for touchdown passes. “It’s amazing. It’s one of the best ever. Should I say it? Marshal?” He looked over at Yanda, both grinning. “That’s ‘not bad for a running back’? We good? That’s a drop-the-mic thing.”
The Ravens might fall in the divisional round, or in the AFC championship game, but it will not be for a lack of consistency. Some teams peak too early; the Ravens, if anything, are still rounding into form.
Thomas lauded Harbaugh for “constantly reminding us, like, ‘We can’t relax,’ “ and the Ravens defense, once the team’s weak link, has returned to its ironclad form. Cleveland finished with 241 yards and 4.5 yards per play Sunday; no opponent has gone for more than 350 yards since the Browns in Week 4. The Ravens’ special teams, a week after their worst performance in ages, were rock-solid. The offense essentially took the first 28 minutes off and still scored 31 points.
As the Ravens’ regular-season finale approaches, players and coaches will talk about the rival Steelers (8-7), about how they still have a playoff berth to play for in Baltimore. But there is no escaping the magic of their season or the mastery of their quarterback. Entering Sunday night’s games, only one team had a point differential for the season above plus-200: the Ravens, at plus-231. And there was maybe no one more concerned about Week 17 than the star who probably won’t play in it.
“We’re going to celebrate on the plane, probably, but I’m just happy,” Jackson said. “We got a great ride going on right now, but we got to keep going. We want to get to the Super Bowl, not just get to the Super Bowl game. We fought hard. They fought hard. They wanted this victory as bad as we did. I’m just happy we’re 13-2 right now.”