Baltimore Ravens

The Ravens’ Lamar Jackson and Browns’ Baker Mayfield are natural rivals. But for how much longer?

After the game was over last month, after another meeting had ended with another loss, Baker Mayfield hung back, loitering around the 30-yard line inside M&T Bank Stadium to catch up with the old friend in enemy colors.

Lamar Jackson was busy with a postgame interview. He had not played well, throwing a career-high four interceptions, but his Ravens had beaten Mayfield’s Browns, 16-10, in a prime-time Week 12 game. They were still atop the AFC North, still looking down on a Cleveland team that was running out of time for a turnaround.


As Jackson’s interview carried on for over a minute and a half, Mayfield waited patiently. He’d put up with much worse this season. Seeing a Ravens official usher Jackson on from his “Sunday Night Football” hit to his next obligation, Mayfield, helmet off, stepped into view.

“L.J.!” Mayfield shouted at Jackson. “Hey, what’s up?” Jackson said as they embraced. For about 15 seconds, they made small talk. Mayfield called Jackson a “baller.” Jackson asked Mayfield how his brother was doing. Mayfield asked Jackson how his mother was doing. They said they’d stay in touch.


“He’s a good guy,” Jackson said last week of Mayfield, whom he got to know through their shared history as Heisman Trophy winners. “A great guy off the field as well. But when we’re playing against each other, we’re trying to win. We’re trying to win at the end of the day.”

And that is what could make the Ravens’ game Sunday at FirstEnergy Stadium the last installment of a rivalry that once seemed destined to endure — or at least the beginning of the end.

In Baltimore, Jackson’s future seems secure. Ravens (8-4) officials have said they’re confident they’ll sign the 2019 NFL Most Valuable Player to a long-term extension, though Jackson’s nontraditional representation and disappointing 2021 could change the framework of his deal.

In Cleveland (6-6), Mayfield might be playing for his job. Like Jackson, he is signed through 2022. Unlike with Jackson, team officials have not committed to keeping him under contract beyond then. Browns general manager Andrew Berry declined in July to comment on Mayfield’s contract situation. Last week, Berry was noncommittal when asked whether he saw Mayfield, who ranks 26th in the NFL in QBR, as the team’s quarterback of the future.

“I think with Baker, especially from a long-term perspective, you really try and take a big-picture approach,” Berry told Cleveland reporters. “Really, with any player, it is about body of work, really, over several years and also taking into context the environment or particular individual’s situation. We have seen Baker play a lot of good football here. We have seen Baker play good football this season. I know he is excited and we are excited for the opportunity ahead of us. We expect him to play his best football moving forward over the next five weeks.”

When Jackson and Mayfield first met as starters three years ago, it was not hard to imagine their battles shaping the AFC North’s next decade in the way that Matt Ryan and Drew Brees’ shootouts defined the NFC South in the 2010s.

In 2018, Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger led the NFL in passing with a career-high 5,129 yards. He was also 36 years old; the following season, he’d need season-ending surgery to reattach three torn flexor tendons in his right elbow. Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton’s 2018 season ended in late November after he tore ligaments in his thumb; he’d last just one more year in Cincinnati before heading to Dallas.

In Baltimore and Cleveland, however, there was the promise of youth. After taking over as starter for the injured Joe Flacco, Jackson entered the Ravens’ 2018 regular-season finale against Cleveland with five wins in six starts. Mayfield, a front-runner for NFL Rookie of the Year honors, was on his way to 27 touchdown passes, then a league record for a first-year quarterback. The Browns were 7-7-1 as they headed to Baltimore, their most wins in four years.


The rookies’ first matchup played out like a prizefight. In a 26-24 Ravens win that clinched the franchise’s first division title since 2012, Jackson passed for 179 yards, ran for two scores and helped power a 296-yard rushing attack. Mayfield went 23-for-42 for 376 yards, three touchdowns and three interceptions, the last of them coming on the edge of field-goal range with just 66 seconds remaining.

“I’m usually not impressed with rookies, but you saw two rookies out there today that showed this is their league,” Ravens outside linebacker Terrell Suggs said after the game. “Everybody knows the history of football in Cleveland, and that guy [Mayfield] is going to be something for years to come.”

The next two years put the first-round picks on different paths. Jackson, the fifth quarterback taken in 2018, was a unanimous MVP selection in 2019 after leading the NFL in passing touchdowns and breaking the single-season record for rushing yards by a quarterback. At the end of an up-and-down 2020, after two years of postseason disappointment, he won his first playoff game before being knocked out of a divisional-round loss to the Buffalo Bills.

Mayfield, the No. 1 overall pick, needed time to level up. His accuracy plummeted under 60% in 2019, only to bounce back in 2020, helped by a dominant offensive line and play-action-heavy scheme. Back in the playoffs, Cleveland beat the division champion Steelers for its first playoff victory since 1994 — before Mayfield was even born.

Success against Jackson’s Ravens, however, has been elusive. Mayfield is 1-5 in the matchup as a starter, the lone win coming in a 40-25 road blowout in September 2019. After that came two no-shows in commanding Ravens victories and two crushing prime-time losses. Their “Monday Night Football” classic last season, a 47-42 Ravens win in Cleveland, was named the game of the year by the NFL Network.

“Throughout these years, it’s been fun,” tight end Mark Andrews said Thursday of competing against Mayfield, a close friend and former Oklahoma teammate. “To be able to play with him in college was a joy for me. But at the end of the day, he’s a competitive person, and I am, too. So it’s all about those bragging rights.”


Mayfield’s fourth year in Cleveland, maybe the most hyped in franchise history, has been about as pleasant as the sad-sack seasons the Browns want to forget. In September, he partially tore the labrum in his left (nonthrowing) shoulder. A month later, he reinjured it. In November, he hurt his foot and left a blowout loss to the New England Patriots with a knee injury.

“This is probably the most beat-up I’ve ever been in my career,” Mayfield said last month. “It’s not like it’s one particular thing. It’s multiple.”

His finishing kick this year could determine how many AFC North matchups he has left. With Mayfield’s $18.9 million fifth-year option guaranteed, a return to Cleveland in 2022 is likely. But his stagnating play and injury history have raised questions about whether he’s the quarterback to lead a young, talented Cleveland roster to playoff success — not only in the future, but also this year.

The weak quarterback class in next year’s draft could force Berry to consider alternatives from around the league. Mayfield’s stiffest competition for the Browns’ job might be veterans currently earning paychecks elsewhere. Jameis Winston and Teddy Bridgewater will be free agents. Matt Ryan could be. Aaron Rodgers, Deshaun Watson, Russell Wilson, Jimmy Garoppolo, Kirk Cousins and Drew Lock could all hit the trade block. Where will Mayfield stand when the carousel stops spinning?

“I do think that Cleveland will bring [Baker] back; I guess there’s always a chance that they don’t,” CBS analyst and former NFL quarterback Trent Green said. “I think he’s dealing with a lot of injuries, he’s dealing with a lot of expectations, a lot of personalities in that locker room. There’s a balancing act there, and when you’re not 100% healthy ... I just think he’s another guy in this game, like Lamar, who’s trying to do too much.”

With the bye week behind them, Sunday’s game could offer a much-needed reset for the Browns and their struggling offense. A win over the Ravens would boost Cleveland’s playoff odds from 21% to 35%, according to FiveThirtyEight’s projections.


A big game might also begin to chip away at the narrative surrounding Mayfield, the quarterback who has so much in common with Jackson — except, perhaps, a future in the AFC North.

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“Baker is someone that cares deeply about where he is, about that organization and about the players that he’s with,” Andrews said. “Again, like Lamar, he’s a fighter. He does everything he can. I know there may be some discontentment, but I know those fans love him.”

Baltimore Sun reporter Childs Walker contributed to this article.

Week 14


Sunday, 1 p.m.


TV: Chs. 13, 9 Radio: 97.9 FM, 1090 AM

Line: Browns by 3