"They went 'Cover Zero,' said Lamar Jackson. "We've been studying it all week, throughout the bye week."
The chants of “M-V-P!” bounced around M&T Bank Stadium late Sunday night, as a defense hailed as one of the NFL’s greatest ever through eight weeks trudged off the field, battered and broken. They had met Lamar Jackson. They had not been able to stop him.
It was almost exactly a year ago that the Ravens quarterback’s ascent had begun after a Week 9 injury to Joe Flacco’s hip. Now, in prime time, against a quarterback Jackson has called the greatest of all time, against a Hall of Fame coach renowned for his defensive brilliance, against an undefeated New England Patriots team, Ravens fans were making their case heard. Their quarterback was special. They’d seen it. Now all of the NFL had, too.
In a 37-20 win, the most impressive of his budding career, Jackson went 17-for-23 for 173 yards and a touchdown and rushed 16 times for 61 yards and two scores. The Patriots’ Tom Brady, one of his football idols, finished with 285 yards but did not make the better decisions. Nor did he have the better team.
With their 11th straight home win in prime time, the Ravens improved to 6-2 for the first time since 2012 and defeated New England (8-1) for the first time since January 2013, their penultimate game in a Super Bowl run. It was the Patriots’ largest margin of defeat since a Week 10 blowout loss to the Tennessee Titans last season. It was a Most Valuable Player moment for the quarterback who’d stood up to them.
“I’m right with the crowd. I mean that. Man, this man is the MVP,” said safety Earl Thomas III, who had a crucial fourth-quarter interception. “I’m right behind him. I’m backing him. He makes my job easier. And, you know, when you finish the game like that, man, it’s just a sigh of relief again for us on defense.”
The Ravens scored the evening’s first 17 points but needed the final 13, too, to put away the game and tighten their hold on the AFC North lead. Nowhere was the team’s steadily expanding potential more apparent than in those decisive drives.
With the Ravens leading just 24-20 midway through the third quarter and and their defense gassed on the sideline, offensive coordinator Greg Roman called for a pass on the third play of a drive that needed just 3 more yards. The Patriots blitzed everyone but the handful of defensive backs needed in coverage. Jackson dropped back, wound up and nailed tight end Mark Andrews on a corner route for 18 yards.
Just a few minutes later, they needed another lifeline. The Ravens were at New England’s 38-yard line, and it was fourth-and-4. Kicker Justin Tucker “could have got it there,” coach John Harbaugh said, “but it was beyond our number.” So the Ravens called a play that wide receiver Willie Snead IV said they’d worked on. Jackson rolled out, fired to the sideline and got what he needed against one of the NFL’s elite secondaries: a 7-yard completion, a first down.
The drive’s finishing touches were at once expected and also unprecedented. There was a jaw-dropping outside-inside juke by Jackson on linebacker Kyle Van Noy on an 11-yard scramble. Two plays later, he found tight end Nick Boyle wide open in the left flat for a 5-yard touchdown pass. It was Boyle’s first touchdown in 56 career games. So many teammates ran over to celebrate with him, Jackson gave up on finding his way into a “whirlwind” celebration in the end zone.
“Ecstatic,” tight end Mark Andrews said of the mood after the Ravens’ 14-play, 81-yard, eight-plus-minute drive, the longest against the Patriots this season, according to NFL Research. “I haven’t seen a whole team and a whole offense so happy for one guy to score a touchdown.”
There was more jubilation still ahead. The Patriots and coach Bill Belichick needed Brady needed to look like his old self, but he did not. When Brady felt pressure Sunday, he moved only as far as he had to. Sometimes, he found enough time to move the chains. Other times, he felt the full weight of the Ravens’ blitz-heavy schemes.
After outside linebacker Matthew Judon nailed Brady on a third-and-10 drop-back following Boyle’s score, his downfield pass fluttered to Thomas. The safety had enough time to settle underneath it, the throw might as well have been a punt.
“It’s not my first time,” Thomas said of picking off Brady.
It was appropriate that Jackson should deliver the last nail in the coffin. On the final push of the Ravens’ second straight 14-play drive, Jackson waited for a hole on third-and-goal from New England’s 1. His first surge on a quarterback draw didn’t get him there. So right tackle Orlando Brown Jr. dragged him there.
It was the game’s last score. New England had just one first down over the final 3:19.
“I’m trying to win versus anybody I play,” Jackson said. “I don’t really dwell on one player, or it’s just this guy I want to beat. Like I said before, that’s still the GOAT [Brady]. Nothing changes that. I’m happy to get the win, of course, and especially at M&T Bank Stadium. It’s pretty cool, but I don’t really care because it’s against Tom Brady. I just want to win.”
At times Sunday, the teams seemed to swap identities. Early in the third quarter, inside linebacker Patrick Onwuasor dislodged the ball from wide receiver Julian Edelman, a technique of intense study in New England. Cornerback Marlon Humphrey, two weeks after returning a fumble for a touchdown in a win against the Seattle Seahawks, picked up the bouncing ball and was on his way again.
His 70-yard fumble recovery for a score, the longest in Ravens history, extended his turnover streak to four straight games and the team’s lead to 23-14.
But the Patriots, whose offense seemed to vacillate between being stuck in neutral and in fifth gear, responded with a punishing drive themselves. Six of their final seven plays in an 11-play drive were runs, including a 1-yard touchdown by running back James White. Ravens linemen who hurried off the field during New England’s high-tempo drive bent over once they reached the sideline, hands on their hips.
They needed help. The offense delivered.
“They’re a force and get you tired a little bit and all of that sort of stuff,” Harbaugh said. “I just felt like our guys kept their composure. We got a couple stops, forced a couple field goals through all of that. ... So the composure of a young football team in this setting in that situation against that team was pretty impressive.”
The Ravens did not wait long Sunday to show some new wrinkles. On their 11-play opening drive, there was a speed option that yielded a 13-yard run for running back Mark Ingram II (15 carries for a game-high 115 yards). There was a jet-sweep shovel pass to wide receiver Marquise “Hollywood” Brown that he took into the open field for 26 yards. There was a designed inside run for Jackson out of the shotgun, with a couple of wide receivers flanked out wide.
There was also some good luck on special teams. (Bad luck would come a little later.) After the Patriots stuffed Edwards on third-and-2 from New England’s 5, defensive end Shilique Calhoun jumped early on a gimme field-goal attempt. One play later, the Ravens called a zone read. Jackson had so much time as he sauntered into the end zone, he did a Deion Sanders-esque trot before spinning past the goal line whimsically.
After a 39-yard field goal by kicker Justin Tucker on their second drive, the Ravens kept punishing New England’s rush defense. They needed just three plays to go 77 yards. Their shortest play was their first, a pass. Next came a 53-yard dash up the middle by Ingram, a season high. After that, a 12-yard touchdown for running back Gus Edwards, who cut back into a gaping hole between left tackle Ronnie Stanley and left guard Bradley Bozeman.
Over their first eight games, the Patriots had allowed four touchdowns. It had taken the Ravens just three drives and less than 16 minutes to score two themselves. They would finish with four overall.
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At his postgame news conference, Jackson wore a shirt that read, “Nobody cares. Work harder!” He was reluctant to talk about what he or the Ravens had proved. Jackson could rely on his teammates for that — just as they’ve come to depend on him, their 22-year-old superstar.
“The stage is set, man," Snead said. "This kid is just destined to be great. He attacks those moments. He wants those moments to happen. That’s what he gravitates to. That’s when he’s at his best, in those big moments. To be able to see him be able to grow and just make plays, that’s just awesome. It’s an awesome thing to see.”