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Lamar Jackson Has Blown Open the MVP Debate—and the Ravens May Be the NFL’s Most Complete Team

In a 41-7 rout of Houston on Sunday, Baltimore’s defense was just as impressive as its offense

NFL: Houston Texans at Baltimore Ravens Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

The Ravens scoring 41 points against the Houston Texans on Sunday was not surprising. What was surprising was that Baltimore held the Texans to seven points. The AFC South–leading Texans, competing for a first-round bye, were spliced and diced by Baltimore’s buzz saw on Sunday. In the process one thing was made clear: Not only do the Ravens have the league’s best offense, they also have one of the league’s best defenses. Now, any team other than the Patriots beating them en route to the Super Bowl is looking less likely by the week.

Both Lamar Jackson and Deshaun Watson were hyped as MVP candidates entering the game. In the rematch of their 2016 Clemson-Louisville epic, everybody got off to a slow start. On Baltimore’s first drive, Jackson overthrew a few of his first passes, kicker Justin Tucker pulled a 43-yarder for his first missed field goal of the season, and on their next drive Baltimore screwed up a fake field goal attempt. An early Houston drive ended when Deshaun Watson launched a deep ball for DeAndre Hopkins on fourth-and-2 but the ball fell incomplete. Texans head coach Bill O’Brien challenged the play despite more than 95 percent of pass interference challenges since Week 3 failing. Predictably, the call was upheld. The final play of the first quarter was Jackson throwing a pass that hit tight end Nick Boyle in the hands with room to run but ended up a drop. It was a fitting end to a strange quarter that ended 0-0.

From that point, the Ravens and Texans took two divergent paths. The Ravens calmed down and scored on every one of their ensuing drives, not counting the drives that ended both halves. In the whole game, Jackson completed 17 of 24 passes for 222 yards and four passing touchdowns with no turnovers. It was the second game this season that Jackson finished with four passing touchdowns: He shellacked the Miami Dolphins in Week 1 for five touchdowns on 20 passes in a 59-10 win. He also added 86 rushing yards on nine carries, almost half of which came on this 39-yard run that was almost as impressive as his spinning touchdown from last week.

This game was crucial in the MVP race. Ten of the last 12 MVPs have gone to a quarterback whose team earned a first-round bye (voters ultimately care about winning). The Texans would have leapfrogged the Ravens for second place in the AFC with a win. Instead Jackson and the Ravens handed Watson his biggest loss as a starting quarterback since at least high school, and Jackson is now in a top tier for the award along with Russell Wilson, who was on bye this week. According to Baltimore running back Mark Ingram, thought, Jackson has front-runner status all to himself:

Even Watson agrees. The two exchanged jerseys after the game, and Watson signed his jersey with a message saying Jackson was the MVP. (Also, Lamar wrote that Deshaun was the GOAT a few weeks after saying Tom Brady was the GOAT, so maybe we can take all of this with a grain of salt.)

While Jackson thrived on Sunday, Watson was just trying to survive. Watson completed 18 of 29 passes for just 169 yards, no touchdowns, one interception, and one lost fumble while dealing with Baltimore’s rejuvenated defense. The Ravens sacked Watson six times, the third time he has been sacked six times in a game but the first instance since Week 4. Baltimore blitzes a league-high 49 percent of snaps, and on Sunday those blitzes overwhelmed Houston’s blockers; the Ravens hit Watson 10 times.

Entering the season, Baltimore’s secondary was considered the strength of their defense and their pass rush was supposed to be a weakness. Edge rushers Terrell Suggs and Za’Darius Smith left in free agency for Arizona and Green Bay, respectively, and inside linebacker C.J. Mosley left for the Jets. Baltimore filled those spots with young but unproven players Matthew Judon and rookie Jaylon Ferguson, and it made one uncharacteristically splashy free agency move to replace longtime safety Eric Weddle with Seahawks legend Earl Thomas. Adding Thomas to a secondary with Tony Jefferson, Jimmy Smith, Marlon Humphrey, and Tavon Young gave Baltimore the deepest unit in the league. Then everything went haywire. Young injured his neck in August and was out for the season. Smith played in Week 1 but missed the next two months with a knee injury. Jefferson tore his ACL in Week 5. A team already thin at pass rusher was suddenly thin all over their defense, and the points added up. A 40-25 loss to Cleveland in Week 4 was rock bottom.

Everything has turned around on defense since the team acquired Rams cornerback Marcus Peters for pocket change in Week 7. In his first game, Peters pick-sixed Russell Wilson as the Ravens held Seattle to a season-low 16 points. When the Ravens returned from their bye week, Smith returned from his knee injury, making Baltimore’s secondary their strength once again. Houston’s game on Sunday was their worst by total yardage (232) and tied for the fifth-lowest yards per attempt in a start of Watson’s career (5.8). The game likely would have been a shutout if not for a Carlos Hyde touchdown run that came when the score was 34-0 in the fourth quarter.

Baltimore’s offense is fantastic. Anyone who watches them knows this, but the numbers match the eye test. They lead the league in yards per drive, points per drive, plays per drive, and time of possession per drive. But adding a defense that can suffocate a playoff-caliber offense like Houston’s makes their win over the Patriots three weeks ago look even more legitimate. Even their special teams is ranked as the fifth-most efficient unit by Football Outsiders, which stems from John Harbaugh being a special teams coach by trade and Justin Tucker being the league’s best kicker. The Ravens nearly shutting out the Texans may have been a shock, but if they keep rising as the season goes on, nobody will be surprised.