Lamar Jackson Silences Doubters (Again), Leading Ravens to AFC Championship

Ravens get set for the first AFC title game in Baltimore since 1971.

In the afterglow of his best playoff performance as a pro—four touchdowns and one big win at M&T Bank Stadium—Lamar Jackson said he wasn’t sure what compelled him to keep running into one of the end zone tunnels after scoring on an eight-yard, fourth-quarter scamper late in the Ravens’ 34-10 victory over the Houston Texans. 

“I don’t know what took me back there,” Jackson said in a post-game press conference, about what will go down as one of the signature celebrations of his career. “I just seen it, and I was off to the races.”

Here’s one idea about why: Jackson has obsessed over putting his fingerprints on the silver Lombardi Trophy for years. As he put the exclamation point on the Ravens’ divisional-round win over Houston on Saturday night, he’d never been closer in his pursuit.

These Ravens will face either the Kansas City Chiefs or the Buffalo Bills (depending on the outcome of Sunday night’s game) in the AFC championship at 3 p.m. next Sunday back at M&T Bank Stadium. The winner advances to Las Vegas for Super Bowl LVIII.  

On a frigid January night, after having a hand (and feet) in his fourth touchdown of the game and putting on another MVP-worthy show (252 total yards) in front of an announced 71,018 freezing fans, Jackson might as well have gone full Forest Gump style and kept running to the locker room—or home—to warm up and get ready for the week to come. With just six minutes left in the game, business was done.  

The 26-year-old, sixth-year pro led the Ravens to scores on each of their four second-half possessions, as they broke open a 10-10 game at halftime. Jackson scored on a designed 15-yard run early in the second half and guided a 90-plus-yard drive that stretched into the fourth quarter before rushing for another TD—this time disappearing into one of the stadium’s service tunnels, and emerging amid photographers to take faux pictures with linemen Ronnie Stanley, with Morgan Moses snapping the frames. 

“Lamar with the ball in his hand is Magic Man,” Moses said. “Any time you have the opportunity with the ball in his hand, you know something great is going to happen.” 

As the top seed in the AFC, these Ravens (13-4) will do something no other in the team’s 28-season history will: host a conference title game. In each of the team’s two Super Bowl seasons in 2000-01 and 2012-13, they were a lower-seeded team than their opponents (the Raiders and Patriots, respectively) and had to go on the road to advance. Sunday’s game will also mark the first AFC championship game in Baltimore since 1971, when Johnny U was quarterbacking the Colts. We’re talking history that has never been made, not even by Ravens vintage like  Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Joe Flacco, or Trent Dilfer. 

“That’s what’s up,” kicker Justin Tucker, the longest-tenured Raven on the team at 12 seasons, told us on Saturday in the locker room. “I didn’t know that. That’s pretty cool. I think everybody knows we’re on the precipice of something great. We’re really on to something. When we can keep it going, a week and a day from today, I know the stadium is going to be absolutely rocking. It will be a blast to see our fans let loose, have a good time, and cheer the Ravens on, hopefully to an AFC championship win.” 

It’s amazing how quickly narratives can change. Before Saturday’s game, tired critics still had reason to talk about Jackson as a quarterback who never won a big playoff game (1-3 with a notable dud of a loss in 2019-20, when the Ravens were similarly the top seed in the AFC). But this team is built differently than those previous incarnations, and Jackson is a different quarterback. 

“You know I heard that,” Jackson said. “I see it, but it is what it is. Every time I’m on that field, I’m trying to play to the best of my abilities. Those guys just had our team’s number in the past, but it’s a different team. We just have to stay locked in on what’s ahead of us.”  

With one spectacular half on Saturday night, Jackson made a bullet-proof case for another NFL MVP trophy. He’s now within grasp of everything he’s wanted, as well as everything he promised to Ravens fans upon being drafted at the end of the first round in 2018. 

“Lamar just played out of his mind,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. 

It’s also worth noting that first-year offensive coordinator Todd Monken pushed all the right buttons calling plays on Saturday, including runs for Jackson at just the right times. Plus, the Ravens’ defense, led for now by NFL head coaching candidate Mike MacDonald, didn’t allow a touchdown, with Houston scoring on a punt return and one field goal. 

Apart from the touchdowns, a critical fourth-down conversion near midfield—with the Ravens ahead 17-10 during the game-changing 93-yard drive—stands out as a perfect play call for the moment. It was a well-executed fake, and something we never saw under former offensive coordinator Greg Roman, whom Monken replaced last offseason.)

Jackson talked after the game about the additional freedom he has in the offense compared to past seasons (and playoff games), like the ability to change plays at the line. 

“I have the keys to the offense,” he said. “It means a lot for your [offensive coordinator] to trust in you to be out there and putting our team in a great situation. That’s all I need, and we’re going to go from there.”  

This was really what this season was going to be defined by all along. After two previous seasons that Jackson didn’t finish because of knee and ankle injuries, as well as three early exits from the postseason before that, there were doubts about whether Jackson was worth the five-year, $260 million contract he received in the offseason after months of contentious negotiations.

You may recall the Ravens gave him the ability to talk to other teams about signing as a free agent (in exchange for a pair of draft picks—none took the chance) and it’s hard to forget the particularly rocky stretch that included a trade request from Jackson, who was representing himself as an agent in talks with general manager Eric DeCosta. 

The drama ended up being a lesson in compromise. In addition to getting rich, even if it wasn’t with a fully guaranteed contract he sought initially, he got a pair of wide receivers he wanted from the Ravens front office in veteran Odell Beckham Jr. and rookie Zay Flowers. He took control of a new offense that relied less on running and put the ball in his hands to throw more, and the coaching staff asked Jackson to be a more vocal leader. He was always determined—and that showed up at halftime of Saturday’s game. 

In the locker room, Jackson had some words for his offense, as it stalled in the second quarter and struggled to move against a Texans defense that sacked Jackson three times on blitzes.

“A lot of cursing,” Jackson said of his message at halftime. “It would be inappropriate if I said it right here. But we weren’t really doing anything to their defense…we weren’t doing our job.”

Jackson himself admitted he had to throw the ball quicker and not give Texans rushers the chance to sack him on pass plays. If there is room for improvement, it’s with the passing game. 

Oftentimes, halftime talks are overemphasized in importance (if you lose, nobody cares about a “Win One For The Gipper” speech), but this one appeared to be influential. Devin Duvernay started the second half with a 37-yard kick return into the Texans’ end of the field, and six plays later, Jackson dropped back at the 15-yard line, faked a pass, and took off for the end zone behind a blocking Gus Edwards and center Tyler Linderbaum. In celebration, he tumbled on the frozen turf three times then lay on his back and cradled the football like a baby. 

Other than his own young daughter, Milan, it’s hard to imagine there’s much more Jackson cares about holding now other than the silver Super Bowl trophy.

“I’m always seeing teams, when they win it, it’s like your whole life just changed,” he said back in 2021. “The excitement I see, the feeling, holding the trophy up. I’ve got to get it. I’ve got to get one.”

He, and the Ravens, are suddenly one more win away from having the chance.