BALTIMORE — For the first half of this NFL season, the outcome of the AFC playoffs looked like a foregone conclusion. The New England Patriots, with their historically dominant defense, would coast to yet another Super Bowl appearance, probably after a rematch with otherworldly quarterback Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC championship game.
Then Lamar Jackson and the Baltimore Ravens intervened.
And now, as December nears and the regular season enters the stretch run, a case can be made that the Ravens — not the Patriots — are the AFC’s Super Bowl favorite. The Ravens bolstered that case here Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium as Jackson did more wondrous things, their defense roughed up Deshaun Watson and they overwhelmed the Houston Texans, 41-7.
The Ravens beat another playoff-contending AFC team and did so convincingly. They have a record of 8-2. They have a top MVP contender in Jackson, the second-year standout who has become the epitome of the modern-day, dual-threat NFL quarterback. They own a victory over the Patriots.
And their defense, which has been unusually vulnerable this season, looked like a traditionally rugged Ravens defense Sunday by making life miserable for Watson, who was sacked six times, lost a fumble and threw an interception. The Ravens had seven sacks in all.
“Anytime you’re 8-2, you’ve got a special group of guys,” Ravens tailback Mark Ingram II said. “I think we’ve really got a special group of guys. … We have a goal of being champions, so we don’t have time to rest.”
This game promised to be a quarterbacking duel between Jackson and Watson. They had a memorable meeting in college in 2016 as Watson and Clemson beat Jackson and Louisville. This time, it was Jackson and his team who had the clear upper hand.
Jackson threw for four touchdowns as part of a 17-for-24, 222-yard passing performance. He had a string of 13 straight completions following a 1-for-6 beginning. Jackson also had 86 of the Ravens’ 263 rushing yards, with a couple of his signature highlight-reel efforts on display. Just before Jackson appeared for his postgame news conference, Ingram introduced him as “the man, the myth, the legend, the MVP front-runner.”
Said Jackson: “I’m all about winning.”
In the first half, Jackson made a cut so sharp on a 12-yard run that Texans linebacker Zach Cunningham was twisted into putting one hand on the ground and never came close to making the tackle. Even more dazzling was Jackson’s 39-yard dash in the second half in which he finally was brought down by the sixth Texans defender who had a chance to tackle him on the play. That prompted chants of “M-V-P! M-V-P!” by the crowd.
“That was just remarkable,” Ravens Coach John Harbaugh said. “That was incredible. I’ve never seen one quite like it — except for last week.”
Said Ingram: “He keeps one-upping himself each week.”
The Ravens entered the game ranked 15th in the league in total defense and 13th in scoring defense, decidedly pedestrian figures for a franchise whose foundational players have included Ray Lewis, Ed Reed and Terrell Suggs. These Ravens had not shut out an opponent for even a first half this season — until Sunday, when the Texans didn’t score until midway through the fourth quarter of a 34-0 game.
The Baltimore defense harassed Watson all day, sacking him five times in the first half alone. Watson lost a fumble on a sack on Houston’s opening possession, and things never got better from there. He had his right leg twisted awkwardly on the Ravens’ fifth sack of the game just before halftime, getting up off the turf slowly but staying in the game. The Texans, at 6-4, fell into a first-place tie with the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC South.
The Texans were miffed about a first-quarter sequence in which Watson threw a fourth-down incompletion into the end zone to wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins. Ravens cornerback Marlon Humphrey grabbed Hopkins but was not penalized for pass interference. Texans Coach Bill O’Brien challenged via instant replay and lost, with the call on the field allowed to stand.
That provided more fodder for those upset by the NFL’s reluctance to overturn on-field calls on interference-related plays in the first season of the new replay system, which was put into effect after last season’s officiating blunder in the NFC championship game. But it was a mere side note in such a lopsided game, and now Harbaugh’s task is keeping his players from believing too many of the good things said about them.
“If there’s going to be any bouquets that are going to be thrown, they’re not going to accept any,” Harbaugh said. “We’ve got too much in front of us.”