“Lamar!” Harbaugh screamed, and finally Jackson heard him. “Do you want to go for this?”
“Hell, yeah,” Jackson yelled back.
“All right, let’s go,” Harbaugh said.
The coach nodded and adjusted his headset. It defied all reason that only one yard separated them from a victory. The Ravens had 15 players on injured reserve, some of their best included. They had blown a lead and lost in overtime six days prior, on the other side of the country. They faced in Patrick Mahomes a quarterback they had never defeated, a magician who had never lost in September. Jackson had thrown a pick-six on the opening drive of the game, and the Ravens had fallen behind by 11 points in the third quarter. Harbaugh placed his faith in a player he loves, the one he trusts most.
“Maybe I wanted to be sure myself,” Harbaugh said later. “I knew he was going to say yes.”
Moments later, Jackson plowed behind a patchwork offensive line, emerged from the pile and tossed the ball into the sky. Suddenly the Ravens were streaming from the sideline, helmets hoisted in the air, leaping into one another’s arms. They celebrated a 36-35 victory over the mighty Kansas City Chiefs, Jackson’s first win over the team he once described as his “Kryptonite” and a testament to the Ravens’ resilience.
“It’s not perfect,” Harbaugh said. “It’s not pretty sometimes — usually. But it is us.”
Earlier in the week, Harbaugh had written on a whiteboard, “Don’t flinch.” The Ravens leaned on the ethos as they recovered from Monday night’s 14-point collapse at the Las Vegas Raiders while weathering an onslaught of injuries. In the end, the Ravens could choose whether they wanted the game in Jackson’s hands or Mahomes’s, which was not a choice at all. Harbaugh never hesitated, and neither did Jackson.
At various points Sunday night, it started to feel like the end of an era of lost opportunity in Baltimore. The most valuable asset in the NFL is a great quarterback on a rookie contract, a player who at once transcends and enables room to operate within the salary cap. The Ravens, among the most smartly run franchises in the NFL, have one of those. For three seasons, for all of Jackson’s brilliance and the organization’s savvy, it amounted to one playoff victory and no appearances during championship weekend.
In 2019, a 14-2 joyride and Jackson’s unanimous MVP effort dissolved in a blowout home loss. In 2020, a late-season resurgence faded when Jackson threw a pick-six late in a playoff loss at the Buffalo Bills. Sunday night served as a test for whether they were too injured to take advantage of Jackson’s penultimate year on a rookie deal. The Chiefs, two-time defending AFC champions, had always revealed a gulf between them and the Ravens on the field. Early last year, the Chiefs pasted them in prime time. How could they hang with Kansas City without star cornerback Marcus Peters, running back J.K. Dobbins, left tackle Ronnie Stanley and so many others?
The answer seemed clear at first: They couldn’t. Jackson fired his first third-down pass of the night into the gut of Tyrann Mathieu, who returned it 34 yards for a touchdown. Two drives later, Jackson rifled a deep pass down the middle to Marquise Brown, whom three Chiefs surrounded. Mathieu picked that pass off, too.
“That p---ed me off,” Jackson said. “Trying to force something, trying to make something happen too fast. I know my team is going to look at me. If I keep messing up, they’re going to look like, ‘Damn, what you doing?’ I had to do it for my guys. My guys had my back: ‘We got that out the way. Let’s just play.’ ”
Down 14-7 early, the Ravens refused to submit to their injuries or Mahomes or anything else. At some point as the Ravens replaced their injured players, Harbaugh addressed the entire team, including players other teams had discarded. “If we could sign every one of you to the active roster,” Harbaugh told them, “we would.”
“Trust in each other,” Brown said. “We know we got the guys, no matter if they’re backups. We got the guys. We got the coaches. We got the staff.”
The Ravens trusted in their strengths, even without their best personnel, and that meant pounding the ball. They would total 251 rushing yards with a collection of running backs plucked from late-summer free agency and an offensive line constructed from food scraps and baling wire, 107 of them from Jackson.
Jackson’s most dazzling moment, though, came on a pass. Midway through the third quarter, down by 11, Jackson shuffled in the pocket and darted forward. Chiefs defensive backs sprinted at him with justifiable panic. Jackson leaped. Some 20 yards down the field, Brown thought, “Oh, he’s throwing it!” Jackson suspended gravity, twisted his body and heaved the ball down the field, where Brown had found an empty pasture. A 42-yard score made it a 28-24 game.
Jackson had thrown a hand grenade, and Mahomes picked it up and threw it back. He scrambled and flipped a pass over the middle to Travis Kelce, who dodged and weaved through missed tackles for 46 yards and into the end zone. The Chiefs had retaken an 11-point lead, and teams do not erase 11-point leads against the Chiefs.
Cornerback Marlon Humphrey, Baltimore’s best defensive player, has played on many teams where players dispense blame when something goes wrong. When Kelce scored, he heard the teammates keep saying the same thing to each other: “Don’t flinch.”
The Ravens scored again. Mahomes provided an opening with what he called “one of the worst interceptions I’ve ever thrown.” The Ravens then drained more than eight minutes from the clock with a 14-play, 68-yard drive. Jackson finished it with a fake handoff and a sprint around the right side of the line, which he punctuated with a somersault into the end zone.
“I fell on my butt cheek a little bit,” Jackson said.
Only down a point, Mahomes still had 3 minutes 14 seconds to work with. An eternity, in other words. On the sideline, Jackson turned to backup Tyler Huntley and said, “We need a turnover.”
The Chiefs marched across midfield, into field goal territory. Rookie Odafe Oweh, whom the Ravens drafted in the first round out of Penn State, had revealed his freakish athletic ability all night. He frequently lined up across from Kelce, one of the best pass-catching tight ends ever, and jammed him at the line, often knocking him back. When Mahomes handed off to Clyde Edwards-Helaire, Oweh fought through a hold, lunged and poked the ball loose. He dived and scooped it, giving the Ravens the ball back.
“The kind of play we envisioned him making when we drafted him,” Harbaugh said.
The fourth-down call may have ended the game, but Harbaugh may have shown more faith in Jackson on the previous play, a third and seven. An incompletion would have left the Chiefs with a spare timeout. Harbaugh allowed offensive coordinator Greg Roman to call a pass.
“I have complete confidence in Lamar Jackson to make every play,” Harbaugh said. “I’ll never, ever not have faith in him to make a play in any situation.”
Jackson slung a sidearm laser to Sammy Watkins. He caught the ball and hit the turf a yard away from the first down. They had not converted, but the pass advanced them close enough for Harbaugh to ask Jackson if he wanted to go, close enough for neither man to flinch, even against the Chiefs.
“It’s always Lamar this, Lamar that,” Humphrey said. “It’s really big for him. Happy to get that 0-and-whatever off his plate.”
When it was over, Harbaugh leaped into Jackson’s arms. The Ravens filed up the tunnel and into the locker room. “That was a f---ing fight!” one voice could be heard yelling. Harbaugh congratulated Jackson in front of the team. Jackson stopped him. “Coach,” he said. “The O-line.”
“We’re the Ravens,” Harbaugh said. “That’s us. That’s what makes me proud to be around these guys every day. That’s who we are.”