BALTIMORE – Lamar Jackson’s Most Valuable Player candidacy continues to gain momentum, as he threw four touchdown passes to lead the Ravens to a 41-7 rout of the Houston Texans at M&T Bank Stadium on Nov. 17.
Deep into a stretch of the schedule that was considered one of their toughest of the season, the Ravens (8-2) have manhandled the Seattle Seahawks, the New England Patriots and the Texans, winning all three games by 14, 17 and 34 points respectively.
Here are five quick impressions of the win, which gives the Ravens their first six-game winning streak since the Super Bowl season of 2000:
1. The so-called MVP showdown was no contest.
Much was made before the game of a showdown between potential MVP candidates Jackson and Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson, but this was no contest. For three quarters Jackson looked unstoppable, and the Texans simply had no answers despite a bye week and an extra week to prepare. Watson, meanwhile, never got into a rhythm against a Ravens defense that was dominant at all three levels.
After a ragged first quarter in which he went 1-for-6 for 12 yards, Jackson found his groove completing all seven of his second-quarter passes, two of them for touchdowns to lead the Ravens to a 14-0 halftime lead, and he completed 13 straight throws at one point.
Jackson finished 17-of-24 for 222 yards and four touchdowns, and for the fifth consecutive game, he didn’t throw an interception. He finished with a passer rating of 139.2.
And because this is Jackson, of course there was a highlight-reel run, as he shed at least five Texans tacklers on a third-quarter run of 39 yards.
“It was remarkable. I’ve never seen one quite like it,” coach John Harbaugh said with a grin, “except for last week.”
He finished with nine carries for 86 yards, becoming the first quarterback in NFL history with at least 60 rushing yards in seven straight games. He watched much of the fourth quarter from the bench for the second straight week, as Robert Griffin took over with the game in hand.
Watson, meanwhile, never got in a rhythm, hassled by a Ravens pass rush and bothered by an ankle injury after he was dropped by Jaylon Ferguson on one of the Ravens seven sacks. Watson finished 18-for-29 for 169 yards, with no touchdowns and one interception.
Jackson stressed all week that he wasn’t playing against Watson, he was playing against the Texans defense. True enough, but in this game, only one of the two quarterbacks emerged looking like a legitimate MVP candidate.
2. Matt Judon anchored a tenacious defensive effort.
The Ravens entered the game with 16 sacks, the fourth-fewest total in the league, and had not recorded more than three sacks in a game this season. Then they dropped Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson five times in the first half alone, including the first career sack for Ferguson, and finished with seven sacks overall.
Matt Judon set the tempo with a strip sack on the Texans opening series, and he finished with a team-high seven tackles, two sacks, four quarterback hits and the forced fumble.
“He was incredible,” Harbaugh said. “The energy he brought to the table, the speed of the power rush, he was pretty explosive with that. I thought it was one of his best games. I can’t wait to see the tape. It might have been his best game.”
Judon had four quarterback hits on Tom Brady, so he has been a factor, but before today he had recorded just one sack in his previous six games.
“It’s not like I’ve been rushing bad,” Judon said. “I just feel like some of the quarterbacks we’ve been facing got the ball out of their hands quicker, and I just stayed in pursuit today like I’ve been doing the whole year.”
“And we all know,” he added, “man, you can go on a drought and then you can catch fire in an instant.”
Judon is playing in a contract year, and days like this aren’t going to make his re-signing by the Ravens any easier. In fact, you can bet when contract discussions roll around, his agent is going to show off Judon’s second sack today, when he chased down Watson from behind and dropped him for a 13-yard loss.
3. The secondary deserves a big assist on the pass rush.
More than once, Watson dropped back and had plenty of time to throw but simply couldn’t find open receivers. Then the pocket collapsed, or Watson was otherwise tracked down and sacked, seven times in all.
Judon and Tyus Bowser led the way with two sacks each, but the secondary should get an assist. This was a great illustration of how a strong secondary and a good pass rush work hand in hand.
Marcus Peters, Marlon Humphrey and Jimmy Smith worked hard to contain All-Pro DeAndre Hopkins -- and a questionable no-call on a fourth-down pass intended for Hopkins in the end zone certainly helped set the tempo. But throughout the game, Watson sent four or five receivers out and couldn’t find anyone to throw to before Judon or Bowser or Patrick Onwuasor (one sack) or Brandon Williams (one sack) or Ferguson (one sack) was bearing down on him.
“The coverage is what made those things happen, because he had to hold the ball initially,” Harbaugh said. “and that gave us a chance to get there, certainly. That’s why it’s such a team operation. Those things work hand in hand.”
Hopkins finished with seven catches for 80 yards but was fairly quiet after making four catches in the opening quarter. Peters deflected away one long pass, and Humphrey broke up the pass play in the end zone that left the Texans challenging unsuccessfully for pass interference.
“I have no idea what pass interference is any more,” Texans coach Bill O’Brien said. “No idea.”
The Ravens secondary has made its share of splash plays this year with pick-six touchdowns and fumble recoveries and returns. Today, they were less splashy, but the fundamentals of good technique and coverage were also a game-changing factor for the Ravens pass rush.
4. It’s time to give some credit to this offensive line.
There has rightfully been plenty of MVP talk about Jackson, and worthy accolades for Mark Andrews, Marquise Brown and Mark Ingram, who scored two more touchdowns today to give him 10 for the season.
But it’s probably beyond time to give the offensive line its due.
In this game, the line won almost every battle at the point of attack, as the Ravens piled up 263 rushing yards and Jackson threw for four touchdowns. In the second quarter, Jackson stood tall in a well-protected pocket and had all the time he needed to fire touchdown passes to Seth Roberts and Andrews.
In the fourth quarter, Gus Edwards broke through a gaping hole on the left side and showed burst en route to a 63-yard touchdown run.
Harbaugh pointed out that continuity of this unit has been a key – left tackle Ronnie Stanley, left guard Bradley Bozeman, center Matt Skura, right guard Marshal Yanda and right tackle Orlando Brown Jr. have started all 10 games together.
Back in training camp, the left guard spot seemed to be a constant question, but Bozeman has settled in nicely and this group is working extremely well together. Let’s face it: The Ravens don’t pile up 250-plus rushing yards – which they’ve now done three times this season – or put together eight- and nine-minute drives, without strong offensive line play.
Harbaugh praised offensive line coach Joe D’Alessandris for his old-school approach with his players, adding, “we have a bunch of guys that love to work, very talented guys, very physical guys. … Those guys have all stayed together. They’ve all been out there practicing, and that’s how you improve.”
5. The AFC playoffs could run through Baltimore.
With wins against Seattle, New England and Houston in an impressive four-game span, the Ravens (8-2) have positioned themselves for the No. 1 overall seed in the AFC. They now own a three-game lead in the AFC North with six to play, and they and the New England Patriots are the only teams with fewer than four losses.
Since New England beat the Philadelphia Eagles Nov. 17, the Patriots remain the No. 1 seed in the AFC. The Ravens are just a game behind and have the tiebreaker should the teams end with identical records.
Regardless, the Ravens have navigated this tough stretch of their schedule as well as they could have hoped. It’s not done, with a cross-country trip to face the Los Angeles Rams looming next Monday night before the first-place San Francisco 49ers visit Dec. 1.
But this win gave the Ravens some breathing room in the quest for a playoff bye as one of the top two seeds in the AFC, and strengthened their chances for home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti said last year that one of his major goals was more home playoff games. If his team keeps playing like this, that’s going to happen.