Lamar Jackson was back Tuesday night, and so was the joy.
The Ravens’ effervescent quarterback smiled wide after a fourth-quarter scramble, his legs moving the first-down sticks and cranking up his teammates’ delight. Not long after, there was a stuff-happens laugh after he missed a wide-open Miles Boykin on a would-be touchdown throw. When the Ravens scored an exclamation-point touchdown against Dallas, Jackson bounded to the sideline, all high-fives and bear hugs and good vibes.
The scoreboard inside M&T Bank Stadium read: Ravens 34, Cowboys 17, and Jackson had long waited to be this joyous again. First there were the two straight narrow losses that had upended a promising season. Then came the 10 days of self-quarantine, mandatory after a Thanksgiving Day test revealed a COVID-19 diagnosis. He’d had to watch from home, unable to taste or smell much, as a Ravens team depleted by its coronavirus outbreak was eliminated from AFC North title contention in Pittsburgh.
But he was back now, and maybe so are the Ravens (7-5). They’d entered Tuesday night ninth in the AFC’s seven-team playoff picture. They left with a win over Dallas (3-9) that they needed to stay in the wild-card hunt in December, and with a throwback offensive performance that suggested they could very much contend in January.
“I expected exactly what he did,” rookie inside linebacker Patrick Queen said of Jackson. “He came out there and played a complete game. He gave us his all — that’s the stuff you expect from Lamar. He’s a great quarterback, a great guy, a great leader. We just have to follow behind him and push him to be the best he can be every day and just have his back, no matter what.”
After an early interception, Jackson settled into the game. He looked like, if not the all-everything superstar he was last season, then at least a quarterback well suited to lead an offense missing talented pieces and searching for ways to integrate others.
The Ravens’ first touchdown set the tone for the night. It was vintage Jackson, a fourth-and-2 carry powered up the middle for a 37-yard first-quarter touchdown. Their third touchdown was vintage Jackson, too, a little bit of improvisational magic on a 20-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Marquise “Hollywood” Brown on a corner-of-the-end-zone, third-quarter throw. It was the kind of pass he’s struggled with this year, and it put the Cowboys away for good.
“That was all him,” Jackson said of Brown (five catches for 39 yards). “I’m just grateful we connected on one. We’ve got to keep it going.”
Despite the expected absence of Pro Bowl tight end Mark Andrews, the unexpected departure of wide receiver Dez Bryant and the introduction of yet another offensive line combination, Jackson was more than capable after a limited week of practice. He finished 12-for-17 for 107 yards, two touchdowns and an interception, along with 13 carries for 94 yards and another score.
Because of the NFL’s reshuffled schedule, Dallas had almost two weeks to prepare for Jackson’s return. It might’ve needed two months. The Ravens piled up 294 rushing yards, fourth most in franchise history and more than they had in any game last season, when they set the NFL’s rushing record. Running back Gus Edwards had a game-high 101 yards on seven carries, and rookie J.K. Dobbins had 11 attempts for 71 yards and a score.
“Everyone that touched the ball did something great with it,” said Dobbins, who sat out the Ravens’ gritty Week 12 loss to the Steelers after testing positive for COVID-19. “That’s what we want to see every week, so we’re just going to keep demanding excellence from the group and keep going.”
It was the comeback the Ravens needed heading into the most important game in the most important month of their season. Before ending the slate with eminently winnable games against the Jacksonville Jaguars (1-11), New York Giants (5-7) and Cincinnati Bengals (2-9-1), the Ravens will head to Cleveland to face a strange Browns team — a winning one (9-3).
Tuesday night’s all-around weirdness was a fitting appetizer for what might await Monday night. The surreal started with a tweet a half-hour before kickoff from Bryant, the former Cowboys star: “Tell me why they pull me from warming up so I can go get tested,” he wrote. “I tested positive for Covid WTF.” After two inconclusive COVID-19 tests before the game, Bryant had finally tested positive and been sent home.
In a series of tweets that bled into the first quarter, Bryant seemed to cycle through the stages of grief in real time, from denial and anger (“This [stuff] do not make sense to me”) to depression (“I’m going to go ahead and call it a quit for the rest of the season”) to acceptance (“I’m about to drink some wine and cope”).
For at least this week, there would be no more postponements. The game went on as planned; Bryant was ruled out with what the team called an illness, and an NFL spokesman said contact tracing had determined no high-risk close contacts. Defensive end Derek Wolfe (team-high nine tackles) said some Ravens didn’t even know Bryant had been ruled out until late; Wolfe was in “full pads, taped up, eye black on, ready to go,” when he learned the team would be down a man.
The rest of the first half played out with all the attendant oddities of a Tuesday prime-time game. Jackson’s third meaningful pass in over two weeks was intercepted after a poor throw over the middle to Brown, his second interception on an opening drive in six weeks. He now has seven picks in 11 starts this year, more than he had during his 2019 NFL Most Valuable Player season.
On the drive after his fourth-down touchdown run, the Ravens stalled in the red zone, as they have in recent games. Kicker Justin Tucker was good from 31 yards, but the field-goal attempt was waved off; guard Bradley Bozeman, in an attempt to secure a first down, had been flagged for a false start for pointing out an alleged Cowboys penalty.
The next time Tucker kicked the ball, he missed from 36 yards, ending a streak of 70 made field goals inside 40 yards.
The next minute was almost like an exercise in the universe balancing itself. Dallas quarterback Andy Dalton (31-for-48 for 285 yards, two touchdowns an an interception) had a pass tipped at the line of scrimmage by defensive tackle Brandon Williams and intercepted by Queen, his first career NFL pick.
On the Ravens’ next play, Jackson found Boykin wide open over the middle on a play-action pass for a 38-yard catch-and-run. Boykin’s first target since Week 9 ended in the end zone, and with the Ravens leading 14-10.
The game scattered surprises throughout the night. In the first quarter, the Ravens’ special teams, rock-solid all year on kickoff coverage, gave up a 66-yard return to running back Tony Pollard. In the second quarter, the Ravens offense drew its first defensive-pass-interference penalty all season. And in the first half, the Ravens defense finished with just one hit on Dalton against a Cowboys line decimated by injuries.
About the only thing predictable about Tuesday was that Jackson would try to make the most of it.
“You’re going to get everything he’s got,” coach John Harbaugh said. “That’s really all you can ask for. He’s going to give you whatever he has, and it turned out that he had a lot tonight.”
Jackson is not a cure-all. Even after Dallas fell behind by double digits, trailing 24-10 after Brown’s touchdown catch, the Ravens couldn’t seem to bother Dalton. With Pro Bowl outside linebacker Matthew Judon still on the reserve/COVID-19 list and defensive end Calais Campbell still working his way back to full strength, the defense finished with just one sack, and it came in the fourth quarter.
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Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield, coming off his best performance in 2020 (147.0 passer rating), no doubt noticed the Ravens’ talented cornerbacks having their struggles, too. All-Pros Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters each allowed a touchdown in coverage, and Anthony Averett was repeatedly picked on in his first game since Week 6.
With the Jackson who showed up Tuesday, though, the Ravens had margin for error. They had a quarterback who could make their offense hum like it used to. They had someone to show how good it would feel to win again, to play football again — just in case anyone needed a reminder.
“It felt like I didn’t play [for] a whole season,” Jackson said of his absence. “I was like, ‘It feels good to be back with my guys.’ Even in practice, walking into the locker room and stuff, I was like, ‘Man, I couldn’t wait to see you, your faces.’ It was like two weeks that I didn’t see those guys. I couldn’t wait to get out there and perform for those guys, because I know how much it would mean for us to win games.”
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