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Ravens' climactic game vs. Browns could offer compelling glimpse of AFC North's future

If you want to glimpse the future, and increasingly the present, of the Ravens, look to the back wall of the team’s refurbished locker room — the land of rookies.

The story begins, but hardly ends, with quarterback Lamar Jackson, the universally liked face of the Ravens’ 5-1 resurgence over the past six weeks.

To his right looms the mammoth, bespectacled Orlando Brown Jr., who quietly took over as starting right tackle in Week 7. Next comes Brown’s former Oklahoma teammate, Mark Andrews, who turned the tide of the team’s last game with a 68-yard touchdown gallop, set up by a nasty stiff arm. To his right are intense, thoughtful Kenny Young, who has contributed steadily at weak-side linebacker, and outgoing Bradley Bozeman, who loves to talk grilling and has played his way into significant time at left guard. On the corner sits taciturn running back Gus Edwards, the ideal battering-ram complement to Jackson’s warp-speed grace.

Seven different rookies played at least a dozen offensive or defensive snaps in the Ravens’ season-defining 22-10 win last weekend at the Los Angeles Chargers. And if the team is to claim the AFC North by beating the Cleveland Browns on Sunday, these no-longer-fresh faces will again play vital roles.

“I think right away, the older guys, and even us, we saw that we can make an impact on this team, and that’s what they brought us in to do,” Andrews said. “They were close last year; they were one game away [from a playoff berth]. So, they brought us in here to win this last game. That’s what it’s all about: contributing.”

The same will hold true on the other side of the field, where the Browns will try to spoil a festive day at M&T Bank Stadium behind Baker Mayfield, the brash rookie quarterback who bested Jackson for the Heisman Trophy last year and has remained a step ahead of him this season. Mayfield headlines one of the most promising young rosters in the league, featuring agile, powerful rookie running back Nick Chubb and second-year pass-rush monster Myles Garrett. Cornerback Denzel Ward won’t play because of a concussion, but he made the Pro Bowl as a rookie.

“This is the first playoff atmosphere that our guys will see,” Mayfield told Cleveland reporters during the week. “We’re playing to prove who we are.”

It’s natural, given this high-stakes finale to an eventful Ravens season, to look backward.

Perhaps your mind drifts to New Year’s Eve 2017, when the Ravens came within 44 seconds of a playoff trip only to watch their hopes erased by Tyler Boyd’s 49-yard touchdown on fourth-and-long.

Or perhaps you think of 2012, when the Ravens last won the AFC North and went on the kind of playoff tear some national analysts are predicting for this year’s team.

Or maybe you’re focused on the individual players, many of whom might never don a Ravens uniform again if they fall to the Browns on Sunday. Could this be the end for Terrell Suggs and Joe Flacco, two of the five greatest players in the history of the franchise?

The temptation to elegize is powerful.

Yet it’s just as valid to view this game as a peek around the corner at the future of the AFC North. With the Pittsburgh Steelers coming to the last years of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s Hall of Fame career and the Cincinnati Bengals stumbling toward a possible rebuild, the Jackson-Mayfield matchup could represent the first chapter of a new world order.

The two quarterbacks have already been friendly rivals for several years after they competed for the Heisman in 2016 and 2017.

“We pretty much had a bond from there,” Jackson said. Mayfield reciprocated, calling the Ravens quarterback a “game-changer.”

They don’t handle their business the same way. Mayfield is the more polished passer, Jackson the more thrilling runner. Mayfield makes headlines off the field with his peppery comments. Jackson keeps his words short and upbeat. But those who know both men see an underlying similarity.

“There’s something about them that makes people gravitate toward them,” said Andrews, who played with Mayfield in college and has become Jackson’s favorite downfield target this season.

This will be the Browns’ first look at Jackson as a starter. The Ravens already faced Mayfield in Week 5, when he led Cleveland to an overtime victory. He’s only improved since then; the Browns have won five of their past six games, and in those victories, the rookie has thrown 13 touchdown passes with just one interception.

“I think he’s a good, young quarterback, and I think you’ll continue to see him grow from year to year to year,” Browns interim head coach Gregg Williams said. “But the biggest thing is that he’s shown everybody he belongs now, and I think the facets of his game, all areas of his game, have been very good.”

With Mayfield living up to his status as the No. 1 overall pick in this year’s draft and Garrett establishing himself as the best young defender in the division — Ravens coach John Harbaugh described him as a “potential game-wrecker” that “you have to account for on every play” — Cleveland fans have genuine cause to be excited about the Browns for the first time in decades.

A victory in Baltimore would give them a winning season for the first time since 2007. The Browns are all the more frightening because with Mayfield on his rookie contract for the next four years, they’ll have ample money to fill out their roster.

Despite Jackson’s emergence, the picture is more complicated for the Ravens. Of the rookies who’ve contributed heavily this season, all but Young are offensive players. The team’s newly minted MVP, cornerback Marlon Humphrey, is in his second season. Linebacker Matthew Judon and defensive tackle Michael Pierce are in their third. But many of the key players on their league-leading defense, which carried the Ravens against the Chargers, are veterans who might not be around in 2019.

The list includes impending free-agent linebackers Suggs, Za’Darius Smith and C.J. Mosley, cornerbacks Jimmy Smith and Brandon Carr, and safeties Eric Weddle and Tony Jefferson. Even if the Ravens make a playoff run this season, it’s possible their defense, such a large part of their identity, could look very different in a few months.

Regardless, the 2018 rookie class has delivered a fitting tribute to Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome, who will step aside after the season. Newsome traded back into the first round to pick Jackson and subsequently found immediate contributors on days two and three of the draft.

“They’ve done a great job,” Harbaugh said. “We ask a lot of our rookies, because that’s part of … that’s our program; that’s our plan. If you’re going to get ready to play winning football in this league, you have to make a transition. It’s a tough transition from college football to pro football. It’s a lot of hard work, and we want these guys playing as rookies, and this class has done a great job of responding. … They’re a huge part of where we’re at and where we’re going.”

That’s all in spite of a disappointing season from the team’s first pick, tight end Hayden Hurst, who began the year with a fractured foot and has caught just 11 passes.

The rookie class came in understanding the Ravens’ frustrating recent past — three straight seasons without a postseason appearance for a franchise that used to tick off playoff wins routinely. But they don’t feel beholden to it.

“It’s been talked about this whole time, from players to coaches,” Andrews said. “It’s something that’s on everyone’s mind. We’re well aware of what happened last year. There are a lot of hungry guys in this locker room.”

Ravens veterans cleared out quickly after practice Friday, leaving the space largely to the youth corps. Brown wiggled his hips to Kool & The Gang’s “Get Down on It” as Jackson grinned approvingly.

Jackson was asked if the rookies have given their row of lockers a name.

“We don’t have one,” he said. “But maybe we need to make one. The rookies have been making plays.”

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