The Baltimore Ravens’ (13-2) magically dominant season continued on Sunday, as the team clinched home field advantage throughout the AFC with their 11th straight victory — a 31-15 win over the Browns with Cleveland.
And with that, Lamar Jackson clinched this season’s NFL MVP award.
Jackson — 341 total yards, three passing touchdowns — added more highlight-worthy plays through the air and on the ground, extending plays with apparent ease and juking defenders out of their shoes to convert first downs in situations that initially looked impossible.
This has been a weekly thing for Jackson this season. In all, he’s amassed 43 total touchdowns, with a crisp 36-to-six touchdown-to-interception ratio and an NFL-record (for a QB) 1,206 yards rushing and counting.
Jackson’s speed and elusiveness surpass that of Michael Vick, and his improving passing skills have taken his season to statistical heights of that of Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers’ best years this decade.
Among Baltimore’s 11 straight wins, seven came against teams with winning records, including top-tier teams such as the Super Bowl-worthy Patriots (12-3) and 49ers (12-3).
After leading San Francisco’s new-school offense with Colin Kaepernick at the beginning of this decade, offensive coordinator Greg Roman’s revolutionary offensive attack in Baltimore is nothing like we’ve ever seen in the pros. At least not to this dominantly-effective extent.
Give credit to Ravens head coach John Harbaugh for his willingness to let go of the past, and embrace this new style. This offseason, Baltimore bid farewell to Super Bowl 47 MVP Joe Flacco at the position. Flacco and Harbaugh were a rookie pair of quarterback and head coach in 2008, and had been together since.
But Harbaugh’s obvious faith in Jackson sparked the decision to roll with the No. 32 overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft as it’s franchise.
Make no mistake, Baltimore has perfectly matched Jackson’s ability with coinciding personnel — a mauling offensive line, bruising running back Mark Ingram and the NFL’s best tight end trio in top man Mark Andrews, former first-round pick Hayden Hurst (selected before Jackson) and blocking H-back Nick Boyle.
Heck, first-round rookie Marquise “Hollywood” Brown is yet to be fully unleashed, not because Jackson is unable to throw downfield, but because those shots are not needed when Baltimore is methodically marching at a consistent pace, as is.
Although many insist Jackson will be “figured out,” — a loose term that has been tied somewhat to Cam Newton after his ridiculously-good 2015 MVP season in Carolina — it’s best to appreciate Jackson’s season for what it is, and note that there are signs that he will improve in the coming seasons, if you can believe that.
Jackson has become more polished since his playoff meltdown in a Wild Card loss to the Chargers in Baltimore last January. Now, Baltimore’s next meaningful game will be a playoff contest in nearly three weeks that they will host.
The spotlight will be on Jackson, and if we can expect consistency (and we should) with his extraordinary season, it’s that he’ll wow fans and defenders alike once more, as he attempts to end his season in his hometown in Miami, in Super Bowl 54.
But for now, an MVP award will do.
NFL MVP RACE
1. Lamar Jackson, QB, Baltimore Ravens. It’s over. The award is Jackson’s. And because of that, this will be my final MVP race rankings of the season.
2. Russell Wilson, QB, Seattle Seahawks. Wilson has done a lot to keep Seattle in the mix for a first-round bye, but he needs more help to take this team to a Super Bowl.
3. Jimmy Garoppolo, QB, San Francisco 49ers. If the 49ers’ early season dominance was about the defense, the second half of their season has been about the ascension of Jimmy Garoppolo.
4. Michael Thomas, WR, New Orleans Saints. At the very least, he deserves co-OPOY award honors with Christian McCaffrey, if not, an outright win. He’s been unstoppable this season. He can play as a ‘big’ slot receiver and as an outside force. What a player.
5. Deshaun Watson, QB Houston Texans/Patrick Mahomes, QB, Kansas City Chiefs. Both Watson and Mahomes have had some struggles at times, but they pale in comparison to their fantastic play throughout the season. These guys, coupled with Jackson, are the future of the AFC. The new wave of quarterbacks has arrived.
Next up: Christian McCaffrey, RB, Carolina Panthers
THE BETTER HALF
1. Baltimore Ravens (13-2) (Last week: 1). The Ravens should look to rest several players versus the Steelers, which include the banged up Marks — Ingram and Andrews. Both are vital to Baltimore’s Super Bowl chances.
2. San Francisco 49ers (12-3) (Last week: 2). Jimmy Garoppolo converted a pair of 3rd-and-16 situations late. The 49ers will clinch the NFC’s No. 1 seed with a win in Seattle. A loss will drop them to the No. 5 or 6 seed. That’s insane.
3. New Orleans Saints (12-3) (Last week: 3). It was a good sign that the Saints got Alvin Kamara going, and were able to remain effective in a cold, outdoor game in December versus a tough opponent.
4. Kansas City Chiefs (11-4) (Last week: 4). The Chiefs have allowed a league-best 9.6 points per game since Week 11. Their 2006 Colts prophecy remains intact.
5. New England Patriots (12-3) (Last week: 5). The Patriots offense finally got things going versus a top-tier defense in the Bills. Julian Edelman and James White are Brady’s top passing targets, but he’ll need N’Keal Harry and Rex Burkhead to join that group this postseason if they are to have success. But most importantly, if the offensive line plays like they did versus Buffalo on Saturday, a 2018-like run for New England is possible. Here they come again.
6. Green Bay Packers (11-3) (Last week: 7). The Packers can clinch a first-round bye with a win tonight and next week, and a Seattle win over San Francisco.
7. Minnesota Vikings (10-4) (Last week: 8). The Vikings won’t pass the Packers in the NFC North with a win tonight, but they will have gained some major confidence. Kirk Cousins (0-8 career record on Monday Night Football) needs this win.
8. Seattle Seahawks (11-4) (Last week: 6). The Seahawks are stumbling to the finish line. But they still have a shot at the NFC West title if they can beat the 49ers at home this Sunday night.
9. Houston Texans (10-5) (Last week: 10). The Texans are a topsy-turvy bunch, but an AFC South title and the No. 4 seed in the AFC (probably) will do.
10. Buffalo Bills (10-5) (Last week: 9). The Bills hung tough in New England. They’ll be a hard team to face in the postseason.
11. Tennessee Titans (8-7) (Last week: 11). The Titans’ end-of-season schedule has been brutal. They need to win at Houston to make the postseason.
12. Philadelphia Eagles (8-7) (Last week: 16). If they do indeed win the NFC East, I doubt the Eagles will make too much noise in the postseason, but they’ve shown their toughness down the stretch.
13. Pittsburgh Steelers (8-7) (Last week: 12). The Steelers have almost everything they need to be a top team this season, but are without a quarterback. That’s killed them.
14. Indianapolis Colts (7-8) (Last week: NR). Their midseason swoon was a shame, because they have talent. Keep the Colts in mind for your 2020 predictions.
15. Dallas Cowboys (7-8) (Last week: 13). Just a tragic end to the Cowboys season, if Philadelphia wins next week. Either way, Jason Garrett should be gone.
16. Los Angeles Rams (8-7) (Last week: 14). A rough way to end their year, but with a few moves and renewed sense of tenacity, the Rams may be back in the postseason fold in 2020.
Next up: Tampa Bay, Oakland, Chicago, Atlanta, N.Y. Jets