SANTA CLARA, Calif. — If Lamar Jackson is indeed poised to win his second NFL Most Valuable Player award — and after Monday night, who else ya got? — it will be because he has mastered the game’s little things. Here the Ravens are, on top of the NFL after a 33-19 shellacking of the NFC-leading San Francisco 49ers, and here’s Jackson, their talisman and engine, without a long reel of MVP moments.
In 2019, he turned into Houdini on his breakaway run against the Cincinnati Bengals, diced up the Los Angeles Rams for five passing touchdowns in prime time, set the NFL’s single-season rushing record for a quarterback. In 2023, he is turning check-downs into long catch-and-runs, coolly escaping cramped pockets more for his receivers’ benefit than his own, handling the pressure of a record contract and a new offensive scheme like a veteran wise beyond his years.
Jackson has evolved, and the Ravens are better for it.
Week 16 games do not define seasons. (Just ask Jackson, who’d trade considerable regular-season heartache for a shot at Super Bowl glory.) But in a showdown of MVP front-runners, in a matchup hailed as the Game of the Year, Jackson let the game come to him. Then he bent it to his will, as he usually does.
“I thought Lamar had an MVP performance tonight,” coach John Harbaugh said after Jackson went 23-for-35 for 252 yards and two touchdowns, adding seven carries for 45 yards. “It takes a team to create a performance like that, but it takes a player to play at that level, to play at an MVP level. It takes a player to play that way. And Lamar was all over the field doing everything.”
The Ravens (12-3) have needed Jackson to do everything but drive the team bus over to the stadium this season. The offense he took the field with Monday night at Levi’s Stadium was not something central casting would offer up for a typical MVP. The Ravens’ two most explosive running backs (J.K. Dobbins and Keaton Mitchell) are done for the year. Their most productive receiver (tight end Mark Andrews) is on injured reserve. Their bookend tackles (Ronnie Stanley and Morgan Moses) are banged up.
And still Jackson outdueled the 49ers’ Brock Purdy, with his pick of All-Pros to rely on and an offensive mastermind calling his plays. Against a top-five defense, Jackson helped lead seven straight scoring drives from late in the first quarter to late in the third. His back-to-back touchdown passes early in the second half gave the Ravens a 30-12 lead and the NFL an emphatic reminder of this team’s lethal offense-defense-special-teams synergy.
“I think if anybody watched the game, if anybody watches football this season and watched the Baltimore Ravens, they know for a fact: Lamar Jackson is the MVP, hands down,” inside linebacker Roquan Smith said. “Anyone that watches football and knows football and [can] see the type of impact he has on the game — not even stat-wise, but just individually, the plays that he makes quarter in and quarter out, play in and play out — compare his film to anyone else in the league. Then I would love to hear what anyone else has to say after that.”
Haters will be hard to find this week. Disrespect fueled the Ravens heading into their Christmas Day battle royale — “Everybody was writing us off before we even had a chance to play,” inside linebacker Patrick Queen said — but they will fly back to Baltimore as the toast of the NFL. In wins against the Detroit Lions, Jacksonville Jaguars and 49ers (11-4), whose dominance this season had invited comparisons to all-time greats, the Ravens outscored the division leaders by a combined 94-32.
Their hope is that Jackson will need only one more regular-season game to burnish his MVP bona fides. With a win Sunday over the AFC South-leading Miami Dolphins at M&T Bank Stadium, the Ravens would clinch the conference’s No. 1 seed and home-field advantage in the playoffs. Their Week 18 game against the Pittsburgh Steelers could be little more than a tuneup for the divisional round, as it was when Jackson and the Ravens blitzed through the NFL’s regular season four years ago.
If New Year’s Eve turns into another coronation for Jackson, he will have more than earned the right to celebrate, if only for a little while. A headlining performance against the Dolphins’ elite defense would be another feather in his cap. Since Week 9, Miami ranks fourth in the NFL in expected points added per defensive play, according to RBSDM.com, and third in success rate.
This, the Ravens knew, is what their brutal end-of-season schedule offered once they returned from their bye in early December. The offense could prove something, the defense could prove something, the special teams could prove something. Every player, coach and staffer over the next five games could show this, could earn that. Three impressive wins in, the star who’s proven the most is also the star who cares for the attention the least.
“We got the ‘dub’ — I really don’t care about [my] performance,” said Jackson, who had to move past a slow start, including an intentional-grounding penalty on a madcap scramble that cost the Ravens a first-quarter safety. “I just want to win, and that’s what happened tonight. On Christmas, that was my gift. They asked me in an interview a couple weeks ago, ‘What would I want for Christmas?’ My wish got granted.
“We just need to keep going, keep staying locked in and keep staying focused, because we know what it was in 2019 when we were playing against [teams] like this, winning regular-season games. When the time came, we didn’t finish the season. We’re just going to keep taking it a day at a time, a practice at a time and a game at a time. That’s all I’m focused on right now.”
The comparisons to 2019 are inevitable. Another win will only hammer home the similarities: a star quarterback, a versatile offense, a frightening defense, an elite special teams unit. The Jackson who leads these Ravens is not altogether too different from the Jackson who led those Ravens, either. He still collects slights like matches, ready to light the fires that fuel him. He still runs like almost no other quarterback — just ask 49ers All-Pro linebacker Fred Warner — and still gets off throws like almost no other quarterback.
But this offense does not need a Houdini. It needs Jackson to buy enough time in the pocket to give running back Gus Edwards the angle for a 39-yard catch-and-run out of the backfield. It needs Jackson to have the patience to wait for wide receiver Nelson Agholor to shake free in the front of the end zone for an easy score. It needs Jackson to take what’s given to him and to take over when he needs to.
Jackson “can do everything,” rookie wide receiver Zay Flowers said, and that includes the simple stuff. In a season like this, it’s all adding up in the end, the big and the small.
“You saw it tonight,” Flowers said. “He ran it, he threw it, he led the team. That’s the MVP. You lead your team, you’ve got the best record in the NFL, and he just comes out and continues to come out and do what he does, game in and game out even though people talk about, ‘He can’t do this. He can’t do that.’ And he comes out and proves them wrong every time.”