Except for the long stretches when he looked like the best player on the field, Lamar Jackson did not look like himself Thursday night. The Ravens quarterback’s balance was off, his speed sapped, his change of direction limited. An ankle injury had sent him into the team’s medical tent in the first quarter. A heating pad was required in the second half.
“I’m good,” Jackson said afterward, and not just because the Ravens had reestablished control of the AFC North with a 34-20 win over the Cincinnati Bengals. “We’re not going to talk none of it into existence. I’m good.”
It might be the most important reassurance in football. Jackson’s best ability this season — more than his command of a new Ravens offense, more than his pinpoint passing, more than his elite elusiveness — has been his availability. It might be what separates the Ravens from their challengers in the NFL’s toughest division. It’s certainly what’s separating Jackson from his quarterbacking brethren in Ohio.
On Wednesday, the Cleveland Browns announced quarterback Deshaun Watson would undergo season-ending surgery to repair a fracture in his throwing shoulder. On Thursday, the Bengals lost Joe Burrow to a right (throwing) wrist sprain late in the first half. Coach Zac Taylor told reporters after the game that he did not have further information.
With Steelers quarterback Kenny Pickett twice knocked out of games this season, the division’s most stable quarterback situation belongs to perhaps the division’s least likely candidate for health and wellness. Jackson missed the Ravens’ final five games in 2021 with a bone bruise in his ankle. He missed their final six games in 2022, including a playoff loss to the Bengals, with a PCL strain. But he has been Mr. Reliable in 2023, leaving games only in the case of blowout victories.
“It’s tough when you lose your quarterback,” coach John Harbaugh said. “We’ve had some experience with that, especially against this team.”
Injuries have made best-on-best clashes between Jackson and Burrow rare treats. Even in the teams’ first meeting this season, a Ravens road win in Week 2, Burrow was still recovering from a strained calf. Thursday’s second quarter, featuring a healthy Burrow and a healthy enough Jackson, offered a tantalizing look at what could’ve been.
Over three possessions, Jackson went 8-for-13 for 126 yards and two touchdowns, the first a 37-yard catch and run by wide receiver Nelson Agholor off a fortuitous bounce, the second a 10-yard scramble drill score by wide receiver Rashod Bateman.
Burrow shined just as bright, going 7-for-8 for 74 yards in two Bengals drives. But on the play before his 4-yard touchdown to running back Joe Mixon, which gave Cincinnati a 10-7 lead midway through the period, he appeared to fall awkwardly on his wrist after a hit by Ravens outside linebacker Jadeveon Clowney.
Cameras showed Burrow shaking his head after he was unable to throw comfortably on the sideline, and he soon left for the Bengals’ locker room. Cincinnati was never the same.
“I’m not happy that those guys got injured,” Jackson said of Burrow and Watson, whose own injury came just four days earlier inside M&T Bank Stadium, in a comeback win over the Ravens. “I don’t want to see nobody in the league get injured, especially a season-ending injury because those guys have to feed their families just like I do. Those guys are quarterbacks as well. Even though we’re going against each other, division rivals, stuff like that, at the end of the day, I don’t want to see anybody go down with a season-ending injury. Pray God is on their side. They keep God first at all times, and, hopefully, those guys have a safe and speedy recovery.”
With tight end Mark Andrews suffering what’s believed to be a season-ending ankle injury, the Ravens were not immune to injury misfortune Thursday. They swept the Bengals without left tackle Ronnie Stanley (knee) or cornerback Marlon Humphrey (calf) available. Other players, including wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. (shoulder), were nicked up throughout the night.
But, so long as the Ravens (8-3) have Jackson (16-for-26 for 264 yards and two touchdowns), they should have the upper hand in the AFC North. According to The New York Times’ playoff picture, their odds of winning the division have surged to 59%. The 6-3 Steelers have the next-best chances, at just 25%. The 6-3 Browns? Just 15%. The two-time defending champion Bengals, who fell to 5-5, are now the longest of long shots (1%).