The Ravens had to win.
Victory on the last day of the 2018 season would complete an improbable rise from 4-5 to the AFC North title. Defeat would mean a fourth straight season with no playoffs.
Who would they rather play under those circumstances than the Cleveland Browns? The Ravens had lost just three of their previous 21 meetings to the perennial division doormat.
But a new chapter opened that December afternoon before a nervous crowd at M&T Bank Stadium. Rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson scored twice to push the Ravens to a 20-7 halftime lead. Cleveland’s own rookie, Baker Mayfield, fired back with a pair of touchdown passes, the second of which cut the lead to two points with 3:24 left. Though the Ravens held on, fans left the stadium believing they’d witnessed the future: Jackson vs. Mayfield.
The real story turned out more complicated. Like any good race, this one between rival quarterbacks has featured drastic momentum shifts. But as Jackson and Mayfield prepare to meet again Monday, in another game with enormous playoff implications, they’ve reached something close to temporary equilibrium.
This time, the Browns hold the better record and the inside track to a playoff spot. Mayfield just played the best game of his three-year career (25 of 34, 334 yards, four touchdowns) to beat the Tennessee Titans, and he’s gone five straight without throwing an interception.
Jackson, meanwhile, has lived through an uneven follow-up to his 2019 Most Valuable Player campaign, with an unwanted stint on the reserve/COVID-19 list and questions resurfacing about his throwing ability. He seemed to recover his joie de vivre in a Tuesday night win over the Dallas Cowboys, and now he’s trying to lead his team — once thought to be a leading Super Bowl contender — through another mad dash to the postseason.
“It’s a fascinating matchup for a lot of reasons,” said ESPN analyst and former NFL quarterback Brian Griese, who will provide color commentary Monday night. “Certainly, these two quarterbacks are going to be tied to each other — same draft, Baker the first pick and Lamar the last in that first round. And then, Lamar has become a face of the league and the MVP last year, while Baker is still trying to prove himself.”
Pro Football Focus graded Mayfield the 17th best quarterback in the league through 12 games, two spots ahead of Jackson. In ESPN’s QBR rankings, the Browns quarterback stood 12th with Jackson eight spots behind. Career measures swing the other way, with Jackson’s 26-7 record as a starter putting him well ahead of Mayfield, who’s still hunting for his first playoff berth.
Their rivalry, of course, goes back to college. Mayfield is 21 months older than Jackson, but the younger player took center stage first, winning the 2016 Heisman Trophy with Mayfield finishing a distant third. In 2017, Mayfield won the most coveted individual honor in college football, with Jackson finishing third.
Mayfield extended his advantage when he became the No. 1 overall pick in the 2018 draft while Jackson, facing questions about how he would adapt to the NFL game, fell to the last pick in the first round. Mayfield starred in HBO’s “Hard Knocks” series, started for the Browns from Week 4 of his rookie season and threw a rookie-record 27 touchdown passes. Entering year two, he was a ubiquitous television pitchman and a dark horse MVP candidate, according to his most optimistic admirers. Then, Jackson passed him with Usain Bolt-worthy acceleration, winning MVP honors and leading the Ravens to a 14-2 record while Mayfield threw 21 interceptions for the disappointing Browns. Coming into 2020, Jackson’s peers voted him the No. 1 player in the NFL Network’s annual survey; Mayfield did not appear on the list.
Jackson’s rout continued right into Week 1, as he completed 20 of 25 passes for 275 yards and three touchdowns, while Mayfield completed 21 of 39 with an interception in the Ravens’ 38-6 win.
From there, the gap narrowed again as the Browns began winning and Mayfield cleaned up his play under the guidance of first-year coach Kevin Stefanski. It wasn’t as if he transformed overnight; he threw seven interceptions in his first seven games and performed dreadfully in losses to the Pittsburgh Steelers and Las Vegas Raiders. But Stefanski predicted his quarterback was “ready to ascend” going into the second half of the season, and his comment appeared sage after Mayfield shredded the Titans. He’s throwing fewer total passes under Stefanski (27 attempts per game compared with 33 per game last season) and accumulating a greater percentage of his yardage on play action.
“I see that he’s another one who’s starting to get the ball out quicker, and he’s had success doing it,” Ravens defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale said. “Now, he’ll still create plays like he always has, but I just think this offense … They’ve done a nice job of marrying Kevin Stefanski’s offense with Baker Mayfield and his strengths. That’s what you’re seeing jump off the tape. He’s taking care of the ball better. He’s not trying to force things. He’s done a nice job of running this offense.”
Griese agreed, calling Stefanski’s system “perfectly suited to Baker’s skills.”
“They’re not putting too much pressure on him,” he said “They have a great running game with the play-action and boot game that stems off of it. … There’s no question that the system works, and I think the Browns feel they finally have the marriage between play-caller and quarterback that is sustainable.”
When Ravens defenders watch the Mayfield from recent weeks, they see a quarterback finally coming into his own.
“If you look at some of the past games, he’s not throwing those ‘willy-nilly’ throws or interceptions like in the beginning of the season,” nose tackle Brandon Williams said. “He’s definitely come into a complete quarterback. He’s definitely leading his team — like he’s supposed to — at the quarterback position.”
Cleveland reporters asked Mayfield this week about the 38-6 drubbing the Browns took from the Ravens three months ago. His response: “We’re a completely different team than we were early on, obviously for the better.”
Jackson, meanwhile, is looking to regain the passing form he flashed that week and for most of last season. His interception rate is up in 2020 while his completion percentage and yards per attempt are down. His ambition to connect on more downfield passes has not come to fruition.
Griese said it’s hard to blame Jackson for all of the Ravens’ struggles, given the retirement of Pro Bowl guard Marshal Yanda, the season-ending injury to left tackle Ronnie Stanley and the COVID-19 outbreak that jolted the team from top to bottom.
“I think the outside noise about Lamar throwing from the pocket kind of affected him,” the ESPN analyst said. “To where he was trying to prove he could do that. Which I don’t think that’s necessarily a good mindset for any quarterback to have, trying to prove anything to anybody. I think he just needs to get back to being instinctive and doing what he does best.”
The reigning MVP did seem re-energized by his team’s victory over the Cowboys, in which he ran for 94 yards and dropped a gorgeous touchdown pass to Marquise Brown in the corner of the end zone. He’ll also benefit from tight end Mark Andrews and wide receiver Willie Snead IV coming off the reserve/COVID-19 list to play the Browns.
“I definitely think that bout with COVID-19 was really eye-opening for him, and a lot of guys,” Ravens offensive coordinator Greg Roman said. “Just the appreciation for the opportunity to be around the teammates and play this great game was magnified, really, by that whole experience. I definitely noticed a little pep in his step.”
Jackson came into his Thursday news conference with a free-and-easy demeanor that hasn’t always been evident this year. He even shadow boxed when discussing his recent bout with COVID-19, which sapped his energy and left him unable to smell or taste normally. He seemed to relish what he described as the “win or go home” stakes of the Browns matchup.
“That’s just joy for me,” he said.
Monday, 8:15 p.m.
Radio: 97.9 FM, 1090 AM
Line: Ravens by 3