"It's a brotherhood here in Baltimore," said Jackson. "We're chasing something right now, and we're trying to get it."
On Sunday, the Ravens beat a division leader coming off a bye week by 34 points. Their NFL Most Valuable Player candidate had another four passing touchdowns and another highlight-reel run. Their defense held one of the NFL’s top attacks scoreless for three quarters and turned an all-everything quarterback into cannon fodder.
In a 41-7 demolition of the Houston Texans at M&T Bank Stadium, the Ravens did everything that can be expected of a Super Bowl contender — and they did it with one of their top defenders sidelined by injury, with their most reliable player misfiring early, with their running game held in check until late.
Good teams don’t often win six straight games, as the Ravens have. Great teams don’t often take a three-game lead in the AFC North into Week 12 or score 127 points in three games, as the Ravens have. It takes a special game in a special season for a team to hear postgame questions about its postseason potential, with everyone in the room knowing the answer to be “NFL championship.”
“We’re going to let y’all write that,” said outside linebacker Matthew Judon, who had two sacks Sunday and no time for self-flattery. “We just have to continue to click. … When the defense is clicking, we have to have the offense’s back, and that’s what we did today. When the season’s over, and we continue to play like that, we’re going to let y’all write about it.”
The Ravens (8-2) say they are determined not to look ahead to January, much less to December, but with every win in their NFL-best streak and every highlight from their incomparable quarterback, Lamar Jackson, it becomes harder to ignore the glistening possibilities of winter.
A month and a half ago, the Ravens were a .500 team reeling from a home loss to the Cleveland Browns. Their defense was in tatters, their quarterback did not look like The Next Big Thing, their schedule was bleak. Now, after their fourth straight win of at least 14 points, three of which have come against playoff contenders, the Ravens have the NFL’s second-best Super Bowl chances, according to FiveThirtyEight.
That might be underselling it; these Ravens might be the NFL’s best team. Over their 6-0 run — their longest streak since their championship season of 2000 — they’ve outscored opponents 206-96. Even with two fourth-quarter cameos for backup quarterback Robert Griffin III in that stretch, they’ve averaged 6.2 yards per play, which would’ve ranked fourth in the NFL entering Week 11. Their defense, which started the season with historically bad efficiency, has allowed 4.7 yards per play, which would’ve ranked third entering this week.
When a team has one top-five unit, it is not to be taken lightly. When a team has two? It no longer qualifies as good. It’s something worth betting the farm on.
“We work really hard,” said coach John Harbaugh, who improved to 22-4 at home in November. “You have a bunch of guys that keep it simple and keep it about football. We’ve had steady improvement. To me, we’ve steadily improved. We improve a little bit every day, because these guys come out there with that mindset. They want to improve a little bit every day, and we have to keep that focus. As the stakes get bigger, your focus has to be narrower.”
In the highest-profile game of the Ravens’ season, they turned in a “Sunday Night Football” smackdown of the then-unbeaten New England Patriots. It was hard to imagine a more comprehensive performance from a team only just starting to captivate the viewing public. Turns out, all it took was another home game.
The Ravens saw the bar Sunday and cleared it, again and again. The AFC South-leading Texans (6-4) had allowed over 100 rushing yards just twice this season, and an opposing player hadn’t rushed for over 100 yards since 2017. So the Ravens finished with 263, their third most this season, and backup Gus Edwards tore away late for a 63-yard touchdown and 112 yards total.
Houston quarterback Deshaun Watson (18-for-29 for 169 yards and an interception), who entered Sunday with the second-most total touchdowns in the NFL, exited Sunday without one for the first time this season. The Texans didn’t score until midway through the fourth quarter, when they trailed 34-0. MVP moments were scarce on an afternoon in which their fourth-ranked offense finished with just 4.1 yards per play, a season low, and Watson was sacked seven times, a season high for the Ravens.
“We’re just going to keep balling,” said defensive tackle Brandon Williams, who had his first sack of the season and helped anchor a line missing fellow starter Michael Pierce (ankle) for the first time this season. “Whoever we play, whatever anybody says, it doesn’t matter. We’re just going to keep playing our game, doing our things, and that’s all we can do.”
Even on their worst days, the Ravens know that they have Jackson, and no one else does. There are few assets more precious than a quarterback who can make a good defense look bad, who can turn a weak start into a strong finish. Jackson, 17 starts into his NFL career, is all that, with a football brain that Harbaugh said is incapable of making the same mistake twice.
His first quarter was inauspicious: 1-for-6 for 12 yards, with only a 18-yard scramble keeping the Ravens’ ground game afloat. There was a missed field-goal attempt, kicker Justin Tucker’s first of the season. An unsuccessful field-goal fake handed the Texans possession within view of midfield, an area they seemed incapable of breaking past.
Then Jackson couldn’t miss. From the second quarter until late in the third, he completed 13 straight passes, including touchdowns to wide receiver Seth Roberts, tight end Mark Andrews and running back Mark Ingram II, who later added a second. (Jackson also wound his way through the defense on a see-it-to-believe-it 39-yard scramble, just for good measure.)
Jackson finished 17-for-24 for 222 yards and four touchdowns, his fourth game this season with three or more passing scores. Nine players finished with at least one catch, a mix of usual suspects (Andrews had four for 75 yards) and unlikely targets (part-time fullback Patrick Ricard had three receptions for 27 yards).
“Everyone is dialed down, focused,” Jackson said. “That’s what you want in your offense. We don’t look at the last play and dwell on it. We move on, even if we make a mistake. We all know we’re going to turn it on [at] some point in the game. We’ve just got to turn it on fast enough, and that’s what we did.”
“Once he got going,” Texans coach Bill O’Brien said of Jackson, “he got going.”
After the game, Watson and Jackson’s first meeting since their 2016 shootout as Heisman Trophy front-runners at Clemson and Louisville, respectively, the quarterbacks traded jerseys. Watson included a message for his “brother”: “Always love, keep grinding and MVP.” Jackson’s case grows every week, from outplaying the Seahawks’ Russell Wilson in Seattle to running through the Patriots’ top-ranked defense to putting the Cincinnati Bengals in a spin cycle. And now this.
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The hype will only grow. The Ravens next play the Rams in Los Angeles, home of the nation’s second-biggest TV market, on “Monday Night Football,” one of the nation’s most watched TV programs. If there’s anyone in Baltimore who still doesn’t know who Lamar Jackson is, chances are that they’ll wise up by week’s end.
Two weeks ago in prime time, Jackson announced himself as a quarterback who defied comparison as easily as he eluded capture. Next Monday night, in the Ravens’ return to the bright lights of a national audience, they can show that as a team, they might be peerless, too.