Lamar Jackson could not know how the most important half of his NFL career would begin, but the Ravens quarterback must have at least had a clue.

On his final four drop-backs before halftime in Saturday’s divisional-round playoff game against Houston, a pattern had developed. The Texans would blitz, and Jackson wouldn’t have an answer. The first three times, Houston came after the Ravens with five pass rushers; Jackson went 0-for-2 and took a sack. The fourth time, the Texans came after Jackson with six. Another sack.

“They were doing their thing,” Jackson would say afterward, “but we watched a lot of film. We were prepared.”

In the afterglow of the Ravens’ 34-10 demolition of the Texans, which secured the franchise’s first-ever AFC championship game in Baltimore next weekend, Jackson’s second-half greatness was all the more remarkable because of how it started and where it ended.

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On the Ravens’ first play of the second half, Houston blitzed Jackson. On their second play, Houston blitzed Jackson. Of course it did. In the first half, Jackson had finished 5-for-9 for 41 yards and a touchdown against the blitz, according to TruMedia. He’d also taken three sacks, the last two sending the Ravens’ offense into the locker room with three straight three-and-outs, just 10 points and an uneasy tie with the AFC South champions.

The Ravens needed an answer. The fate of their season might’ve hinged upon it. In Jackson, they found salvation. He followed halftime expletives with second-half excellence.

Against the first blitz Jackson faced, he found wide receiver Nelson Agholor quickly for an easy 9-yard gain on first down. On second-and-1, Jackson seemed to sense another blitz, motioning running back Gus Edwards into a more favorable blocking position. Another blitz came, and Jackson threw a quick out to tight end Isaiah Likely, who rumbled for 19 yards. Two plays later, another blitz, another first-down dart, this time to wide receiver Rashod Bateman.

It went on like this all second half. The blitz-rattled Jackson of the first half was gone; in his place was a quarterback seemingly immune to the Texans’ well-disguised pressure packages. Jackson finished 7-for-8 for 64 yards against the blitz after halftime, pacing an offense that scored touchdowns on its first three drives.

“I think we just did a better job getting the ball out on time,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. According to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats, Jackson got rid of the ball more than a second quicker against the blitz in the second half (an average of 2.25 seconds) compared to the first half (3.51 seconds). “I think [offensive coordinator] Todd [Monken] called a different game. It wasn’t so much hold the ball and try to push the ball downfield. … Once Lamar was able to sit back there and just pick [the defense] apart and get the ball out quick, he just did a great job with that and then took control of the game.”

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Said Jackson: “I felt like we were doing what we were supposed to do.”

With Houston’s offense held in check all game, the Ravens did not need Jackson to go supernova. He did anyway, shredding Houston’s spotty pass defense (16-for-22 for 152 yards and two touchdowns) and stout run defense (11 carries for a game-high 100 yards and two touchdowns) with equal gusto.

Jackson’s second-half heights were stratospheric. In finishing 9-for-11 for 100 yards and a touchdown — with no sacks — and rushing five times for 50 yards and two scores, the presumptive NFL Most Valuable Player favorite averaged a remarkable 0.98 expected points added per play, according to TruMedia, the fourth-most-efficient second half of his career. The offense’s second-half success rate (57.9%) was also more than six points higher than its previous season high in the second half (51.7%, set in a Week 11 win over the Cincinnati Bengals).

Baltimore Ravens linebacker Kyle Van Noy (50) and defensive tackle Michael Pierce (58) swarm Houston Texans quarterback C.J. Stroud (7) during a playoff game at M&T Bank Stadium on January 20, 2024.
Ravens linebacker Kyle Van Noy closes in on Texans quarterback C.J. Stroud, as defensive lineman Michael Pierce leaps to block a potential pass. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Banner)

“During halftime, the talk was that we knew we took their best shot,” said Likely, whose 15-yard touchdown catch early in the fourth quarter gave the Ravens a 24-10 lead. “So everybody got on the same page. Everybody was in high spirits and knew we had 30 minutes of ball left to play. We looked at it as if it was a 0-0 game and we just needed to go out and execute.”

It wasn’t long before the Ravens neutered Houston’s blitz plans entirely. In the third quarter, the offense ran nine pass plays and seven run plays. But, in the fourth quarter, with the game slipping further and further away from the Texans, Jackson attempted just two passes. The Ravens were happy to run out the clock in the final period, rushing 18 times for 84 yards (4.7 per carry) and a touchdown.

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So concerned was Houston with the Ravens’ running backs that they occasionally forgot about Jackson. On his 8-yard touchdown midway through the fourth quarter, Jackson faked an under-center handoff to running back Justice Hill (13 carries for 66 yards) before booting out to his left, left tackle Ronnie Stanley and tight end Charlie Kolar guiding him into the end zone, almost untouched, against a bamboozled Houston defense.

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“You have to put eyes on the other guys [besides Jackson], too, because our offensive line blocks,” Harbaugh said. “The downhill runs were effective, and then you have to put a lot of resources into stopping those runs. They should give the offensive line and the running backs credit for forcing all that attention inside. Lamar is so good getting the ball back outside.”

Texans coach DeMeco Ryans summed up Jackson’s performance best afterward: “That’s why he’s the MVP.” That’s why he has the Ravens one win from the Super Bowl. Because Jackson can look rusty in one half and ridiculous in the next. Because he can adjust his approach midgame to give the offense what it needs. Because there are only so many ways to stop Jackson, and he’s seen them all.

“He doesn’t just talk, talk, talk and then go out there and not do nothing,” Agholor said. “He says what needs to be said, then goes out there and executes.”