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Lamar Jackson Is Changing His Postseason Narrative

Jackson entered Saturday’s game with a 1-3 playoff record and plenty of questions about his big-game performance. Now he’s brought the Ravens to the AFC championship game—and a showdown with another elite quarterback.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Saturday’s AFC divisional matchup ended up being the game Baltimore had been waiting for since 2018, but the first 30 minutes felt more like a game this city has seen too many times in recent history. Throughout the first half, the top-seeded Ravens found themselves in a surprisingly competitive battle against a heavy underdog. Lamar Jackson was under siege and receiving little help from his supporting cast. And what had been a raucous M&T Bank Stadium crowd to start became an anxious one as the teams went into the locker room tied 10-10 at halftime.

It wasn’t just tense in the stands. Ravens coach John Harbaugh described the locker room as “edgy” at the half, but not necessarily in a bad way. Jackson, normally more of a quiet leader, according to teammate Patrick Queen, was the loudest voice in the room—and he wasn’t handing out words of encouragement.

“I was mad,” Jackson said after the game. “We had no other choice [but to play better].” Unfortunately, that was the only detail he was willing to provide from his profanity-filled message to the team. “It would be inappropriate if I said it right here,” Jackson admitted.

Whatever Jackson said seems to have worked. The Ravens went on to score 24 unanswered points in the second half, and Jackson finished with four touchdowns in the 34-10 win. It was the 27-year-old’s first home playoff win, and it helped book his first trip to the AFC championship game. His performance, which included 100 yards rushing to go along with a 93.9 QBR, should also answer any questions about his capacity to win in the postseason.

Those questions stemmed from Baltimore’s past playoff failures, including a stunning loss to Tennessee in early 2020 during a season in which Jackson had won MVP and the Ravens had finished with the NFL’s best record. The Titans defensive plan was simple but effective that night, as defensive back Logan Ryan explained after the 28-12 win: “We wanted to give [Jackson] loaded boxes all night to get him out of the run game. We were either playing with a loaded box and man-to-man and make him beat us throwing the ball outside mano a mano, or we were going to play a zone defense. … So we had eight-, nine-man boxes all night. You play Madden and run Engage Eight all day, it’s hard to run the ball.”

Four years later, the Texans took a similar defensive approach and didn’t try to hide their intent. Early on Saturday, NFL Network’s Tom Pelissero reported that Houston planned to “heat up” Jackson with blitzes despite coming into the game with one of the lower blitz rates in the NFL.

The Texans sent a blitz on 75 percent of Jackson’s dropbacks—a career high for the Ravens quarterback—and pressured him on over half of those plays. But the plan that worked so well for Tennessee in 2020 proved ineffective against this leveled-up version of Jackson—and the Ravens offense. Jackson completed 13 of 18 passes against the blitz for 120 yards and a pair of touchdowns. A lot of that production came in the second half after the Ravens made some key adjustments, according to Harbaugh.

“I think we just did a better job getting the ball out on time,” the Ravens coach said. “I think Todd [Monken] called a different game. It wasn’t so much hold the ball and try to push the ball downfield, which Lamar did a good job.”

Harbaugh credited Jackson for providing valuable input on how to adjust against Houston’s surprisingly aggressive plan and said Baltimore had to flip its protections in the second half. Jackson getting the ball out quicker also helped. His average time to throw dropped by a full second in the second half when working against the blitz.

That Monken, the Ravens’ first-year offensive coordinator, was able to adjust against a blitz-heavy plan won’t go unnoticed in Baltimore, where fans watched his predecessor, Greg Roman, struggle in that area for four years. And the fact that Monken leaned on Jackson to figure out what changes were necessary did not go unnoticed by his quarterback. “It means a lot for your OC to trust in you to be out there and putting our team in a great situation,” Jackson said. “That’s all I need, and we’re going to go from there.”

All things considered, this may have been the most impressive performance of Jackson’s career. This was an environment that had given him problems in the past: in the playoffs against an antagonistic defense. And while Jackson leaned on his legs throughout the game—making up for a ground attack that wasn’t productive on non-Jackson runs before garbage time—he won this game through quick decision-making and precision passing. It was comprehensive quarterbacking; the kind of performance his critics would have told you he’s incapable of. And he did it on the biggest stage of his career to date.

Jackson will get an even bigger stage next Sunday, when Baltimore will host the winner of Bills-Chiefs, setting up a matchup against Patrick Mahomes or Josh Allen. Those two are widely seen as two of the best quarterbacks in the game, but they’ll have to make room for Jackson at the top if he stacks a trip to the Super Bowl on top of another likely MVP award. This year, which started for Lamar with a contract stalemate and public rejection from a handful of teams after requesting a trade, has turned into one of defiance, and it will continue on for at least one more week.

“He’s not done yet,” Queen said of his quarterback after the win. “That’s why he’s so hungry. That’s why you can see it in his eyes. You can see it in the way he talks [and] the way he’s acting right now. He has a lot to prove, and he’s going to prove that.”