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As fantasy football playoffs kick off, Ravens QB Lamar Jackson has turned into ‘this year’s Patrick Mahomes’

In late August, Rob Norton went to a friend’s house in LaGrange, Ohio, for a fantasy football auction draft. Of all the leagues Norton competes in, this is not the one with the highest stakes. But it is a sentimental favorite. Norton bid for players against friends he’s known since high school. His brother, who’s in the military, dialed in through a video chat app.

“We've been at it for a while,” Norton said, “and it's pretty competitive.”

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Norton, 30, is a lifelong Cleveland Browns fan who developed a distaste for the Ravens from an early age. He’s also a fantasy football blogger who knows good value when he sees it. Entering the auction, he set his sights on Lamar Jackson and the Arizona Cardinals’ Kyler Murray. Murray’s price tag ended up being too high for Norton. But Jackson, at $11 in a league with a $250 budget, was just right.

Over the three-plus months since, there has been no better bargain in football than Jackson. On the field, the second-year dual-threat quarterback has emerged as the Most Valuable Player front-runner on maybe the AFC’s top team. In fantasy football, he has rewarded owners who saw potential but did not expect one of the highest-scoring seasons ever.

As Jackson heads to Buffalo in search of a ninth straight Ravens win Sunday, fantasy owners across the country will be hoping he can finish what he started. Championships, and more than a little cash, hang in the balance. Jackson has been a one-man lottery ticket.

Well, except for Norton’s Team Psh. It’s one thing for his Browns to disappoint; he’s used to that by now. It’s another to have a team starring Jackson and Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey rack up the most points in his league … and finish seventh out of 12, one spot out of the playoffs.

“I'm sure the guys in my league got annoyed with me constantly talking about it,” Norton said, “but it's so crazy.”

In 12 games this season, Jackson has thrown for 2,532 yards, 25 touchdowns and five interceptions and rushed for 977 yards and seven touchdowns. His 32 total scores lead the NFL. In fantasy terms, that’s a lot of points, too: Jackson’s 329 are more than all but 12 players finished with last season. Only McCaffrey (345.1) has more this season.

Jackson’s historic play has won games for more than just the Ravens. Kansas City Chiefs star Patrick Mahomes, in his MVP season last year, finished with the greatest fantasy season ever for a quarterback (417.1 points). Jackson is on pace to smash that mark by over 21 points. Chances are that if you needed an outrageous performance from Jackson ahead of the Ravens’ Week 12 “Monday Night Football” rout of the Los Angeles Rams, he delivered a victory.

There were perhaps more clues about Jackson’s fantasy potential than his real-world promise last season. Jackson was not yet a great passer — just six touchdowns in seven starts, with a single-game high of 236 yards — but he was a prolific rusher. He had three 100-yard games, six rushing touchdowns and, in newly promoted offensive coordinator Greg Roman, a play-caller who could optimize Jackson’s run-pass threat as he had for Tyrod Taylor and Colin Kaepernick.

In fantasy football, that amounted to a cheat code. Or, as fantasy sports writer Rich Hribar called it in a 2013 NumberFire article, the “Konami Code,” a reference to a combination of buttons in old Konami video games that allowed players to obtain free lives. Under standard fantasy scoring rules, rushing yards are worth 2½ times more than passing yards, and rushing touchdowns are worth 1½ times more than passing touchdowns. As Hribar explained then, even the league’s bad running quarterbacks were valuable.

“This was way back when Tim Tebow was a quarterback and a starter in the league, Terrelle Pryor was actually a starter at this time as well, and these guys were horrible at throwing the football and being accurate,” JJ Zachariason, the editor in chief of fantasy sports company FanDuel and host of the “The Late-Round Podcast,” said in a telephone interview. “But they were very, very fantasy viable because of what they could do with their legs.”

And Tebow was no Jackson. As Zachariason mulled over his draft rankings last offseason, he considered Jackson’s potential. “I mean, what he was doing per game was historic. And so I really took a step back and said, 'OK, at the very least, we're looking at Lamar Jackson having this rushing floor that could be Michael Vick-esque-plus, right?' ”

Many of Zachariason’s friends followed his advice and were promptly rewarded. But in some leagues like Norton’s, Jackson was overlooked. Running backs Kenyan Drake and Darrell Henderson went for higher auction prices. Other fantasy players on social media have shared tales of finding Jackson on the waiver wire. He has been a 16-carat diamond in the rough, a player whose passing stats alone would have him near the top third of all quarterbacks. Not bad for a running back, indeed.

“The rushing stats are ridiculous,” NFL Media senior fantasy analyst Michael Fabiano said in a telephone interview. “When you think of quarterbacks in terms of fantasy football, historically, you’re thinking of Brett Favre, Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Drew Brees, players like that. But when you have a quarterback who can run with the ball like Lamar Jackson, it just accentuates his value.

“You're basically getting a quarterback and a running back in the same player.”

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His fantasy stock has almost defied comparison. Fabiano said most predraft rankings didn’t have Jackson as a top-70 fantasy pick; he’s since turned into “this year’s Patrick Mahomes.” The best analog for Jackson’s 2019, Zachariason said, might be Deshaun Watson’s 2017; after starting the season as a backup, the Houston Texans quarterback set the NFL rookie record for touchdown passes in a calendar month before ultimately tearing his ACL. But Jackson has played in every game, leaving only in the case of blowouts.

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Given his expected production against the Bills, New York Jets and Pittsburgh Steelers, Jackson is “going to win people a lot of fantasy championships in the next few weeks,” Fabiano said. He also could be the first quarterback off the board in next year’s fantasy drafts, a notion that once seemed as unbelievable as the Ravens winning eight straight or Jackson posting two perfect passer ratings in one season.

In LaGrange, it will be a bittersweet postseason for Norton. The league’s highest-scoring team had made the playoffs every year until this one, and this season’s grand prize was $800, a nice payoff for a $100 buy-in. Fortunately, it’s a two-keeper league. McCaffrey will be back at least one more season for Team Psh. So will Jackson. It’s at least one Raven he doesn’t mind rooting for.

RAVENS@BILLS

Sunday, 1 p.m.

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

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