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Lamar Jackson silences critics (for now) with huge postseason win

“I don’t know what led me to it,” Jackson said.  

His second rushing touchdown of the game gave the Ravens a three-score advantage over the Houston Texans. Momentum carried him well out of the field of play. The All-Pro quarterback reemerged with a mob of his teammates near the stands. Jackson and left tackle Ronnie Stanley posed for the eager multimedia specialists. Rookie receiver Zay Flowers met him near the Baltimore sideline with a skyward leap, and Jackson carried the ball the whole way.

“I don’t know where he was going, but I was just following him,” said Stanley, who was the lead blocker on the touchdown. “That’s just our job: go where the quarterback goes.” 

Jackson and the Ravens were another subpar half of football away from potentially facing a long offseason, one filled with questions about their postseason impotence. By the start of the fourth quarter, Jackson made sure any possible naysayers would remain inside the woodwork – and why he’s about to win his second MVP award. 

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The No. 1 seed Ravens defeated the No. 4 Texans on Saturday, 34-10, in the AFC divisional round. They’ll host the winner of the Kansas City Chiefs-Buffalo Bills next Sunday in the conference’s title game. It’s the deepest Baltimore has advanced with Jackson as its quarterback and will mark the first time an AFC Championship Game will take place in Baltimore since the Colts hosted it in 1971. 

“I thought Lamar was going to play great, but he’s played great all year,” Ravens head coach John Harbaugh said. “Just now, it’s more important than ever.” 

Jackson finished with four total touchdowns. For the second time in his career, Jackson had two rushing touchdowns and two passing scores in a game. The 2019 MVP was 16 of 22 for 152 yards through the air. He rushed 11 times for 100 yards and became the first quarterback in NFL history with three 100-yard rushing performances in the postseason. 

But it wasn’t pretty the whole time. Jackson had 52 passing yards in the first half, which ended with the Ravens going three-and-out on three consecutive possessions. The score was tied at 10, Jackson was sacked three times. A positive for Baltimore was that Jackson managed 50 rushing yards on six attempts. In the locker room at halftime, Jackson did most of the talking. His message included lots of profanity, he said. 

“We were rusty. It was cold as heck out there,” Jackson said. “Everything played a factor. But the thing I’m proud about our team is that we came out in the second half and did what we were supposed to do: points on the board.” 

Kick returner Devin Duvernay – back from injured reserve – jolted the Ravens at the start of the second half by taking the kickoff out to the 45-yard line. Jackson waltzed into the end zone six plays later on a 15-yard designed quarterback draw up the middle. He shrugged off a near-interception on the play before and previously completed three throws in rhythm to advance Baltimore into the red zone. 

The key second-half adjustment for the Ravens’ offense, Harbaugh said, was making sure Jackson was focusing on completions rather than forcing the ball downfield in chunks. They also saw an opportunity to catch the Texans by surprise with designed runs. Houston didn’t sack Jackson once in the second half.

“We were on our heels there at the start of the second half, then Lamar pretty much just took it over,” Texans head coach DeMeco Ryans said. “He made some exceptional plays, and we couldn’t get him down.”

As the Ravens maintained a 17-10 lead, Jackson delivered the knockout punch. On the second play of the fourth quarter, Jackson rolled right and it looked like another quarterback run. But Jackson pulled up and floated a pass to tight end Isaiah Likely, who caught his sixth touchdown since taking over for the injured Mark Andrews. Earlier in the drive, Jackson converted a 4th-and-1 near midfield by executing a naked boot to the left for a gain of 14. The drive went for 93 yards over 12 plays and took 7:03 off the clock. 

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“I think that was the turning point of the game for us,” right tackle Morgan Moses said. “That breaks a defense’s will, right there. It took us all four quarters. But that’s football.” 

If that was the knockout punch, Jackson’s final touchdown was for good measure. His tunnel run started at the 8-yard line and gave the Ravens a 31-10 lead with 6:20 to go. 

“I’m grateful that I’m playing with him and not against him,” All-Pro inside linebacker Roquan Smith said. “Because trying to deal with him dropping back, nothing’s there, he takes off. Or something’s there, he’s dropping it off there, it’s hard to game plan. You can’t really emulate (that) in practice.”  

The defense certainly did its part. Houston quarterback C.J. Stroud looked uncomfortable all game and the Texans’ offense notched three points, as their lone touchdown came on a punt return in the second quarter. Stroud, who should secure the Offensive Rookie of the Year honors next month, said he has admired Jackson for a while. 

“Lamar’s a dog,” Stroud said. “I’ve been a fan of his since high school, really. … It’s really an honor to share the field with a player like that. He’s a generational talent, he’s a helluva quarterback.” 

Jackson completed passes to eight different receivers; Flowers led the team in targets (five), catches (four) and receiving yards (41). Running backs Justice Hill (13 rushes, 66 yards) and Gus Edwards (10 rushes, 40 yards) helped put the game on ice in the fourth quarter – as did the newest Raven, running back Dalvin Cook (eight carries, 23 yards). 

Four years ago, the Ravens found themselves in a similar spot. Jackson was the MVP. They were the No. 1 seed. And the Tennessee Titans shocked them at home. Postseason questions have followed Jackson, who entered with a 1-3 career playoff record, and the Ravens since. 

“You know I heard that,” Jackson said of the criticism. “I see it. I don’t even have to hear it. I see it. But I really don’t care about what people say. I’m trying to win.” 

Now Jackson’s two wins away from his ultimate goal of winning a Super Bowl – and silencing those doubters forever.

This post appeared first on USA TODAY

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