The last time Lamar Jackson played in Cleveland, the Ravens were rolling toward the No. 1 seeding in the AFC, Jackson was polishing his Most Valuable Player candidacy and the Browns, a trendy preseason playoff pick, were bumbling toward a 6-10 finish.
Fast forward a year, and when the Ravens (7-5) visit Cleveland for “Monday Night Football” on Dec. 14, they will be playing for their playoff lives against a Browns team that is rolling, at 9-3 with four wins in a row, including a 41-35 triumph against the Tennessee Titans Dec. 6.
Jackson and the Ravens routed the Browns, 38-6, in the season opener, but a lot has transpired since then. Cleveland has reeled off nine wins in 11 games — losing only to Pittsburgh and Las Vegas while turning aside a collection of sub-.500 opponents — while the Ravens, whose offense was firing on all cylinders in the season opener, have sputtered along in fits and starts.
Jackson has not resembled the MVP quarterback of a year ago, with less accuracy, less success in the red zone and less consistency in general. Can he find the magic against Cleveland again?
At Cleveland last year, Jackson operated the two-minute offense perhaps as well as he has in his career.
After an otherwise sluggish first half in which the Ravens went scoreless for 28 minutes, Jackson engineered a two-play touchdown drive capped by a 39-yard touchdown pass to Mark Andrews for a 7-6 lead with 1:18 left in the half. After a quick Browns three-and-out, the Ravens got the ball back at their own 25 with 55 seconds left. Jackson completed three of four passes to move the Ravens into Browns territory. They reached the red zone after Jackson completed a pair of passes to Seth Roberts, and then Jackson, under pressure, zipped a pass to Andrews for a 15-yard touchdown with nine seconds left.
Jackson’s precise two-minute execution started to dispel the notion that this Ravens’ run-first offense couldn’t score quickly, and the Ravens rolled to a 31-15 win.
Then against the Browns in the season opener this year, Jackson showed MVP form, completing 20 of 25 passes for 275 yards and three touchdowns in the Ravens rout of the Browns. He hit Marquise Brown in stride with a 47-yard bomb, one of the Ravens’ few big deep pass plays all season, and threw two more touchdown passes to Andrews.
Speaking before practice Dec. 10, though, Jackson said that game is done.
“I don’t really care about the success we had,” he said. “That game is over with. … Just like a loss, you can’t do anything about it anymore. So I don’t really dwell on that game. I just try to see what we can try to catch the defense on, just to take advantage and score points.”
Jackson is coming off a 34-17 win against the Dallas Cowboys in which he ran for 94 yards and a touchdown, threw a couple of touchdown passes and appeared to be having as much fun as he has all season.
He was just happy to be back on the field again after being sidelined by COVID-19, which he said left him sleeping for long stretches.
Because of the way the Ravens’ schedule was juggled due to the team’s COVID-19 outbreak — games against Pittsburgh and Dallas both were rescheduled — Jackson missed just one game while under the league’s 10-day isolation protocol for players who test positive, but he said, “Being away for two weeks, it felt like a whole year.”
Jackson and the Ravens know well the stakes at this point.
At 7-5, they can ill afford another loss. If they were to sweep their final four games — and none of their final three opponents (Jacksonville, New York Giants, Cincinnati) has a winning record — they will stand 11-5 with a sweep of the Browns in their tiebreaker favor. If they lose one, though, they can do no better than 10-6 and most likely will need help to sneak into one of the final playoff spots.
“Every game is a big game for us, every week, just like Tuesday was,” Jackson said. “It’s win or go home.”
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