Nine weeks down, eight weeks to go in pro football’s 100th season. One unbeaten team remains: San Francisco is 8-0. Two one-loss teams are left: 8-1 New England, 7-1 New Orleans. And seven other teams with six or seven wins. The league is careening toward a fascinating playoff season that could see Brady-Jackson or Brady-Mahomes, and, maybe Brady-Garoppolo or Brady-Brees or Brady-Rodgers even. But Sunday night showed that so many other matchups ultimately could make the postseason almost as fun as Brady going for his seventh (and maybe last) Super Bowl in New England. How about a final four of youth-shall-be-served Baltimore-Kansas City and San Francisco-Seattle, featuring Jackson, Mahomes, Garoppolo and Wilson. Also: Deshaun Watson would like a word. Don’t forget AFC South-leading Houston, still in the fight for a first-round bye.
Point is: Any of these matchups would be great. The forecast for January is sunny, with 100 percent chance of fun, with or without the almighty Patriots. And at this just-past-midseason point on the calendar, we’ll hit on some second-half themes later in the column. But let’s start here in Baltimore.
The Ravens, with consecutive wins over Seattle (by 14) and New England (by 17), have wedged their way into the discussion of teams that can play deep into January. You had to respect what Baltimore did in Seattle. But starting this game with drives of 72, 54 and 72 yards, and going up 17-0 on New England? I mean, no team had scored 17 on the Patriots this year. Baltimore did it in 16 minutes.
But all the way through the second quarter, and halfway into the third, you got the feeling that the Patriots coming back was inevitable. They’re not as new and shiny, but they’ve been here, overcome that. A muffed Baltimore punt turned into one touchdown, a lost Mark Ingram fumble turned into a field goal, an aborted Baltimore drive turned into another field goal, and it was 17-13 at halftime. If not for Marlon Humphrey running 70 yards with a Julian Edelman fumble on the first series of the third quarter, New England would have gone ahead then. But the euphoria from that TD was short-lived, because the Patriots rammed it down the Ravens’ throats with a 75-yard drive to make it Baltimore 24, New England 20 midway through the third.
Now for the third-and-five in the Sistine Chapel. New England didn’t live by the blitz in this game—by Pro Football Focus’ count, the Patriots blitzed eight time on 27 Jackson dropbacks—but they were coming here. “You could see they were going to play zero,” Andrews told me. That’s the defense playing man on each receiver, one on one, with no safety help for anyone. Jackson saw it too: “We’ve been seeing it all week, and coach [offensive coordinator Greg Roman] has been drilling it in my head.” The Patriots sent six, covering four receivers one on one, with a cornerback, Jonathan Jones, lurking around the middle-linebacker slot to spy Jackson in case he took off. From wide left, Andrews ran a corner route, and got a step on backup safety Terrence Brooks. Andrews, 6-5, has six inches on Brooks. “I just had to deliver the ball,” Jackson threw high, but Andrew went up and got it, maybe six inches out of Brooks reach.
Gain of 18. First down. Then it went Ravens touchdown, Brady interception, Ravens touchdown, ballgame.
“That play really kind of gave us a spark,” Andrews said in the back of the Ravens’ locker room. The adulation was elsewhere—with Jackson, Ingram, Earl Thomas, and other heroes of the night. Rightfully so. But this play, Jackson to Andrews, was the play of the night for Baltimore. It kept the chains moving toward an insurance touchdown, and New England was done.
“He [Andrews] should have the game ball for that,” coach John Harbaugh said. “I forgot.”
Andrews will have other chances. This is an equal-opportunity offense. Four rushers gained yards on the ground; 10 receivers were targeted. This offense is just so multi-dimensional, so different from the NFL standard, even in this day of filling the air with footballs. It’s fun. You sit there and think: What’s coming next?
“All starts with Lamar. Lamar runs the show,” said Earl Thomas. “you better be in great shape when you play us, because Lamar’s gonna wear you down, mentally and physically.”
“Lamar the dude,” Ingram said, with the kind of deep respect you hear only from an admiring locker-room peer.
A while after the game, I found Jackson in the back of the locker room. As those who know him tell it, he’s just a happy kid, respectful, with a strong work ethic, and he doesn’t get cowed by the spotlight. He respects Tom Brady, but said adamantly that he didn’t think, Man, I’m playing Brady tonight. We chatted a bit, and as I prepared to leave, I said to him, “You’re fun to watch.”
“Appreciate that, Mr. Peter,” Jackson said.
So where are the Ravens now? Built to last, I think.
A little history: The 2018 Ravens won six of their last seven to take the AFC North, then moved on from Super Bowl quarterback Joe Flacco and standout GM Ozzie Newsome. They let four integral defensive pieces from the league’s top-rated defense walk. They changed on the fly, and now stand 6-2 in the North with a two-game lead and eight to play. The Ravens are progressive in management and coaching. Harbaugh has embraced analytics—GM Eric DeCosta for years has studied how roster-building can benefit from advanced statistical study—and neither allows temporary failures to deter them from non-traditional thinking. Harbaugh was defiant about trying to score as much as he could in Kansas City in the 33-28 loss. Four times he went for it on fourth down, twice in Baltimore territory. Three times he went for two after touchdowns. Harbaugh might trust his defense, but no D is shutting down Mahomes. Thus the advanced risk-taking.
No team has used Compensatory Picks, and the draft, better than Baltimore recently. In the last 10 drafts, Baltimore has a league-high 83 picks in rounds one through six. (For this exercise, I’ve excluded seventh-round picks, which are nearly equal to college free-agents. Minnesota, for instance, has had 24 seventh-round picks in the last 10 drafts, and only one has been a regular contributor.) Baltimore’s been consistently cool about letting big-money free-agents leave when it’s their time and using Compensatory Picks for replenishment. In the last 10 drafts, seven Ravens Compensatory Picks in rounds four, five and six have become regular starters, including guard Bradley Bozeman, tight end Nick Boyle and pass-rusher Pernell McPhee (before being hurt in October) on the current team.
The collection of picks has allowed Baltimore to spend a fifth-round pick for 10 games of Marcus Peters and consider it a bargain; Peters will be a free-agent after the season, and has fortified a need position at corner; in his first game with Baltimore, Peters had a pick-six off Russell Wilson. So the addition of Jackson, and DeCosta’s emphasis on the team being built to last, should make Baltimore a contender for a while. As for this season, the Ravens have played both New England and Kansas City well recently. No one in the locker room was ready to anoint Baltimore as the team to beat, and lots can happen in two months. But this is a strong offensive team that should be able to make up for some defensive blips.
As for New England, I wouldn’t worry too much about a 17-point loss to an ascending team in early November. This will allow Bill Belichick to acerbically re-focus his team, as he does every year. History should be your judge if you’re either a Patriots fan and totally bummed out this morning, or a Patriots hater, dancing on their grave. And history says in each of their six Super Bowl years, they had bad days. Look at their pratfalls in the six Super seasons:
2001: Lost to Miami 30-10 in Week 4.
2003: Lost to Buffalo 31-0 in Week 1.
2004: Lost to Pittsburgh 34-20 in Week 7.
2014: Lost to Kansas City 41-14 in Week 4 (followed by the famous, “We’re on to Cincinnati” presser).
2016: Lost to Buffalo 16-0 in Week 4.
2018: Lost to Tennessee 34-10 in Week 10.
The last thing Jackson said to a small circle of us stuck with me. It’s almost Belichickian, and it’s going to hold Jackson in good form for a while if he remembers it.
“I don’t really care about the person I’m playing against,” he said. “I don’t care if it’s a primetime game, or playing at 1 o’clock. I’m just trying to win, at the end of the day.”
Then he congratulated a few mates. He put on a pink knit cap and went out into the night, king of the city.