Ravens second-year quarterback Lamar Jackson is focused on the team and not the hype that's surrounding the team.
When the Ravens and Kansas City Chiefs opened their seasons in early September, they must have figured this was a possibility, that the two reigning division champions could enter Week 3 with unblemished records and undented optimism. Only the Miami Dolphins, Arizona Cardinals, Jacksonville Jaguars and Oakland Raiders stood in their way — in other words, not much.
But Sunday’s matchup at Arrowhead Stadium, the NFL’s only one between 2-0 teams, has materialized with an unexpected alchemy. On one sideline is Patrick Mahomes, 2018 Most Valuable Player, “Madden” cover athlete, the NFL’s best (healthy) quarterback.
On the other is Lamar Jackson, who months ago was enduring running back jokes and is now the league’s highest-rated passer. Who saw that coming?
“Right now, the matchup is here,” Ravens wide receiver Willie Snead IV said Wednesday. “We’ve got two elite quarterbacks going at it.”
That is how Sunday’s game will be billed: Jackson versus Mahomes, the 22-year-old with the supersonic legs against the 24-year-old with the rocket arm. Jackson sees things differently — “It’s Ravens versus Chiefs,” he told a substantial media throng, as if he couldn’t believe he was even part of the conversation — but there may not be a bigger stage for a statement game this month.
If seeing is believing, Jackson could convince millions that he is, indeed, an elite quarterback. Almost every CBS market west of the Mississippi River will be getting Sunday’s 1 p.m. game. Most of the Mid-Atlantic, too. Top-player honors aren’t won in late September, but campaigns can start there.
“Week 3 is way too early,” for MVP discussions, Snead said with a grin. “I think Lamar has definitely got that potential. Obviously, Patrick’s got it.”
Through two weeks, the two are statistical doppelgangers:
Along with the Dallas Cowboys’ Dak Prescott, Jackson and Mahomes lead the NFL with seven touchdown passes; no one else has even six.
Jackson is first in the NFL in passer rating (145.2); Mahomes is third (136.3).
Mahomes is first in total offense (406 yards per game); Jackson is third (353.5).
Mahomes is second in yards per attempt (10.7); Jackson is third (10.5).
Mahomes is first in 20-plus-yard completions (14); Jackson is third (12).
Jackson is fifth in completion percentage (71.9); Mahomes is sixth (71.4).
Over 134 combined attempts, neither has thrown an interception.
“Seeing his progression with the understanding of the offense — I mean, I understand going from Year 1 to Year 2, there's a huge switch that you kind of start understanding the offense at a different level,” said Mahomes, who became the youngest quarterback to throw for 50 touchdowns in a season and set franchise records for passing yards in his breakout second season.
“It's able to let him have success more as a passer. He's always had the talent, but it's about learning the offense, and he's done that now, and obviously with his running ability, he can still do that.”
That is where the two diverge most acutely. For as much as Ravens coach John Harbaugh learned in his near-decade under then-Philadelphia Eagles and current Chiefs coach Andy Reid, their respective offenses ask different things of their quarterbacks. Jackson is No. 17 in the NFL in rushing yards (126), far ahead of the next-best quarterback, Prescott (81). Mahomes is the league’s only passer averaging more than 400 yards per game.
If the New England Patriots’ Tom Brady and Green Bay Packers’ Aaron Rodgers are both the “GOAT,” as Jackson has taken to calling players he considers among the greatest of all time, Mahomes is “on his way,” he said.
“Those guys have Super Bowls,” Jackson said of Brady and Rodgers. Mahomes is "a dynamic quarterback. It’s his third year, and he’s been doing a tremendous job. Former MVP. I just can’t wait to compete against him again.”
There is no tried-and-true MVP formula, but being a quarterback helps. Since running backs Shaun Alexander and LaDainian Tomlinson won it in 2005 and 2006, respectively, all but one of the 12 past MVPs have been quarterbacks. The Carolina Panthers’ Cam Newton, the 2015 MVP, is the only player in recent memory to win it with relatively modest passing numbers — and he was the first player in NFL history to throw at least 30 touchdown passes and have at least eight rushing touchdowns in a single season.
Jackson is on pace for 56 passing touchdowns and no rushing touchdowns this season, totals that seem about as likely as another 49-point blowout. It would take a herculean effort to outduel Mahomes or Brady, a three-time MVP, but Jackson already has the sixth-best odds, according to Caesars Sportsbook.
At times, it seems like Jackson would rather throw an interception than talk about his accomplishments, his potential. But if he ever lacked hope for his MVP prospects, he need only look to Mahomes. After a promising but limited rookie year, the former first-round pick entered last season with odds as high as 100-1 — exactly where Jackson’s started this year.
“I think he can just continue doing what he’s been doing,” safety Earl Thomas III said of Jackson. “I think he’s been very consistent. He’s basically like a big energy ball that we need. We need him. Whatever he’s doing, if he’s running the ball, if he’s passing, if he’s on point with the passing game, he’s making it happen for us. And us on defense, we just try to keep getting him the ball.”
Of course, that means stopping the reigning MVP first.