But a new age is coming. Sunday’s game between the Houston Texans and Baltimore Ravens served as a reminder that, as early as this season, one of the conference’s three young star quarterbacks — Houston’s Deshaun Watson, Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson and the Kansas City Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes – could break through. All three possess extraordinary talent, including improvisational skills and athleticism not often seen at the position. And at the moment, Jackson appears to be the strongest contender to lead the conference’s changing of the guard.
“Jackson is the best of them,” Ravens safety Earl Thomas III said.
Houston had no answers for Jackson in Baltimore’s 41-7 win. He combines the best running ability from a quarterback since Michael Vick with a quick release that allows him to beat the defense when he works from the pocket. In dismantling the Texans two weeks after an impressive win over the Patriots, the Ravens have made a case that they’re the best team in the AFC.
Some of the credit has to be given to their defense, which completely shut down Watson, an MVP candidate in his own right. What the Ravens did against Watson wasn’t as dramatic as what the Detroit Lions and Patriots did to figure out and slow down Jared Goff and the Los Angeles Rams’ offense last season, but it was effective and provided a blueprint for future Houston opponents.
Watson’s best work is done outside the pocket. He is a faster version of Roethlisberger, with the same ability to evade defenders and extend plays, then deliver the ball accurately. For the most part, the Ravens blitzed one or two extra defenders to seal the edges and keep Watson in the pocket.
“We did a great job of having discipline in our rush lanes,” Ravens Coach John Harbaugh said. “We didn’t vacate the inside rush. When he did get outside the pocket, we were chasing him.”
Watson completed 18 of 29 passes for 169 yards, and the Ravens sacked him six times and had 10 quarterback hits. This from a Baltimore defense that entered the game with just 16 sacks in its first nine contests.
“We call it the cage rush,” Ravens cornerback Jimmy Smith said. “You rush the edge, and you try to close the pocket on him. He’s a guy who likes to scramble. He has high energy and high effort. The game is to get him down, and we do whatever we have to do to get it done.”
Smith added that the Ravens, a heavy man-coverage defense, did their best to make their zone defenses appear to be man coverage and vice versa. Against three-wide-receiver sets, Baltimore would use a lot of man coverage, and against Houston’s two-tight-end formations, the Ravens mixed between man and zone. That uncertainty, combined with the effective pass rush, kept Watson off balance all game.
“You just have to keep the rush up and rush up the field, making sure you can keep him in the pocket,” defensive tackle Brandon Williams said.
Baltimore’s defenders added that they felt fortunate to be lining up across from Watson and not Jackson.
“We have to go against it in training camp,” Smith said. “We have to go against Jackson, three running backs and three tight ends. We know how tough it is.”
At 8-2, Baltimore is in position to earn a first-round bye in the AFC playoffs and potentially even home-field advantage if New England were to stumble at all down the stretch, given that the Ravens hold the tiebreaker. The Ravens do still have to play at the Rams, Buffalo Bills and Cleveland Browns and host the San Francisco 49ers.
It’s also way too early to count out the Texans, who are tied for the AFC South lead with the Indianapolis Colts, or the Chiefs, who are getting Mahomes back closer to full health. If Brady and the Patriots earn another AFC title, they will have earned it by outdueling the conference’s trio of young stars.
Around the NFL
— The AFC wild-card field is lacking. For all of the aforementioned praise of the AFC’s top four teams, along with a resilient Colts team that is at 6-4 following the surprise offseason retirement of franchise quarterback Andrew Luck, there are some question marks about the conference’s other playoff contenders.
The Buffalo Bills have ridden a soft schedule to a 7-3 start and playoff contention. The Oakland Raiders, meanwhile, are also in the mix at 6-4, just a year after having one of the worst rosters in the league. Neither team figures to be as tough an opponent of the NFC’s likely wild-card teams.
— The 49ers’ injuries are piling up, but they keep winning. I thought San Francisco would lose to the Arizona Cardinals, mostly due to the fact that the team was down so many key players. Joe Staley (finger surgery), Matt Breida (hamstring), tight end George Kittle (ankle and knee) and Kwon Alexander (pectoral) all missed Sunday’s game, while Emmanuel Sanders was playing with a rib injury and fellow wideout Deebo Samuel was injured during the game.
Still, San Francisco was able to pull off the comeback win to retain the NFC’s top record. The next three games on the schedule? Home versus the Packers, then at the Ravens and Saints in back-to-back weeks.
— For as good as the NFC playoff field is, there isn’t much drama. The Seahawks and Vikings could still steal division titles from the Niners and Packers, respectively, but all four of those teams seem likely to make it, along with the NFC East winner and the New Orleans Saints.
The NFC East runner-up is unlikely to be a factor in the wild-card race, and the Rams and the Carolina Panthers might have to win out to enter the conversation.
— Speaking of the Panthers, the Brandon Allen magic is starting to go away. After starting out with a 5-1 record as injured Cam Newton’s fill-in, Carolina has lost two in a row. He has thrown nine interceptions across his past four games.
— Brady is starting to show frustrations with the offense. Despite the easy schedule, the offense entered Week 11 ranked 15th in yards gained. The offense is unsettled at tight end and wide receiver and has holes on the offensive line. Brady was 26 for 47 for 216 yards in the win over the Philadelphia Eagles and had 14 incompletions in the first half.
— The Denver Broncos have lost three games in the final 22 seconds, including Sunday’s 27-23 loss to the Vikings. Blowing a 20-0 lead can’t be good for the job status of first-year head coach Vic Fangio.