BALTIMORE — Countless times during his four-year NFL career, Lamar Jackson has used his transcendent talent to bail the Ravens out of trouble en route to victory. Defensive lapses, poor tackling and mental mistakes have faded away in the glare of Jackson and his highlight-reel plays. Against the Cleveland Browns in a huge AFC North showdown at M&T Bank Stadium on Nov. 28, it was time to return the favor.

Jackson threw a career-high four interceptions and played his worst game as a pro, but the defense picked him up, suffocating the Browns and their dangerous running game as the Ravens secured a 16-10 win to stay atop the AFC North race.

“Defense was just off the charts,” Ravens head coach John Harbaugh said. “I mean, that’s one of the best defensive performances that we’ve seen out here in a long time.”

Jackson finished 20-for-32 for 165 yards with one touchdown and four interceptions, and his passer rating of 46.5 was his worst in 47 career regular-season starts. But as the Ravens have proved again and again this year, style points don’t matter and “winning ugly” is also known as “winning.”

Despite three first-half interceptions by Jackson — including two on consecutive throws — the Ravens led 6-3 at halftime only because Justin Tucker proved again to be the more reliable kicker, hitting field goals from 52 and 25 yards, and the Browns were inept as the Ravens during a spectacularly bad second quarter that featured five turnovers.

Browns kicker Chase McLaughlin hooked a 46-yard field goal try, wide receiver Jarvis Landry lost a fumble as he was sacked operating out of a Wildcat formation, and quarterback Baker Mayfield fumbled while rolling out when he simply dropped the ball.

Jackson pulled out one bit of magic in the third quarter, eluding the Browns’ pass rush by retreating almost 20 yards, then uncorking a long touchdown pass to Mark Andrews that went in the books as a 13-yarder for a 13-3 lead. The play led Browns defensive end Jadeveon Clowney to slam his helmet to the ground in frustration.

The Browns (6-6) cut the lead to 13-10 on a 20-yard touchdown pass from Mayfield to tight end David Njoku late in the third quarter, but the Ravens shut out the Browns in the fourth quarter, milking much of the clock before giving the Browns one final possession with a minute left and no timeouts. Tyus Bowser tracked down Njoku on a fourth-down pass play and dropped him short of the first-down marker to essentially end the game.

“It’s so special when you end the game on defense,” cornerback Marlon Humphrey said. “Taking a knee is the best play in the game, but getting a fourth-down stop is right there next to it.”

Coming off his four-interception night, Jackson said he told the defensive players, “Way to have my back, because y’all deserved that. You played lights out.”

Here are five quick takeaways of the game, which for now gives the Ravens (8-3) the No. 1 seed in a wildly unpredictable AFC race:

1. Score one for the run defense.

The Browns came to Baltimore with the league’s No. 1-ranked rushing attack, averaging 156.8 yards a game on the ground. Cornerback Marlon Humphrey said that the Ravens’ goal was to hold the Browns to 80 yards on the ground, and he conceded that would be a tough task. The Browns totaled half that, finishing with 40 yards on 17 carries.

“I thought our guys played tremendously well across the board on defense,” head coach John Harbaugh said.

Linebacker Patrick Queen set the tempo for the Browns and running back Nick Chubb immediately. On the game’s second play, Queen timed a run blitz perfectly, crashed through the line untouched and hammered Chubb for a 3-yard loss. Chubb, who had averaged about 106 yards through the first eight games, finished with 16 yards on eight carries. Kareem Hunt, activated from injured reserve after missing five games, was held to 20 yards on seven carries.

Queen, who battled through a rib injury that knocked him from the game briefly, totaled a team-high eight tackles, including two for loss.

“We felt everything goes through their run game,” Humphrey said. “Once they get their run game going, the play-action comes. So we felt if we could make them one-dimensional, our best chance of winning would be that way.”

The Ravens did all this without defensive end Calais Campbell, who has been the Ravens’ best defensive lineman this year but missed the game with a concussion. However, veteran run stuffer Brandon Williams returned after missing three games with a shoulder injury, and other defensive linemen stepped up as well.

“Justin Ellis has been doing it all year, and nobody ever mentions Justin Ellis,” Harbaugh said. “I need to mention him more; he’s been playing great football. Broderick Washington went in there and played excellent football. I’m just proud of those guys.”

It’s been a rough year for defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale, as the Ravens’ once-vaunted defense had given up a host of big plays and ranked No. 25 overall entering Week 12. But credit should go to Martindale for devising a dominant run-stopping scheme that derailed the Browns at every turn.

2. Tyus Bowser is evolving into one of the Ravens’ most valuable players.

Tyus Bowser made headlines two weeks ago in the win at Chicago with two of the biggest defensive plays in that game. Against the Browns, Bowser had another huge game, with four tackles, a sack and three quarterback hits, and he prevented Baker Mayfield (18-for-37, 247 yards) from ever getting into any kind of rhythm. Bowser then pretty much sealed the win for the Ravens with an outstanding sequence on the Browns’ final series.

With 1:04 left and the Browns trying for a last-gasp scoring drive, Bowser pressured Mayfield on a second-down incompletion intended for Jarvis Landry (6-111), who had been a problem all night. On third down, Bowser dropped into coverage and broke up a pass over the middle intended for tight end Austin Hooper. Then on fourth-and-10, Mayfield threw a short pass to tight end David Njoku, but Bowser chased down Njoku and tackled him 3 yards short of the first down to essentially end the game.

“Well, that’s Tyus,” Harbaugh said. “He got the game ball in there for that. The guy was all over the field, and that’s what he does. He just does everything.”

Bowser leads the Ravens with 5.5 sacks this year, but the Ravens ask him to do so much more than rush the passer. His full complement of skills was on display on that final series, and he is quickly evolving into one of the Ravens’ most valuable players.

3. This game continued a troubling trend for Lamar Jackson. He needs to be much better.

Lamar Jackson said he was “hot” after throwing four interceptions, and he and the Ravens might want to downplay this performance and move forward with a win, but the stark truth is Jackson has been scuffling for awhile now. He hasn’t thrown four interceptions in a game before, but he has been inconsistent through the air and the Ravens won’t get close to their ultimate goal if that doesn’t improve.

Jackson last year had seven games with a passer rating of over 100. This year he has one, the Week 5 win against the Colts. In the five games since, Jackson has thrown seven touchdowns and nine interceptions and has averaged 6.2 yards per attempt, well below his career average of 7.5. His completion percentage in the past five games has been about 61 percent, compared with 67 percent in the first five games.

To be sure, there are plenty of factors, chief among them the way edge rushers are beating Ravens’ offensive linemen and collapsing the pocket and forcing Jackson to throw under duress at times. But Jackson finally has all his top receivers healthy, which should make the passing game more dangerous. Instead, of late it’s looked more inconsistent, and Jackson’s mechanics have looked off.

In this game, Jackson’s longest pass was the circus catch on a 39-yard, scramble heave by Jackson, but everything else downfield was either incomplete or intercepted. The longest catch by Marquise Brown (8-51) covered 11 yards.

Jackson remains the game’s most dynamic weapon because he can easily win games with his arm and his legs, but his arm needs to improve, and that goes beyond a few poorly thrown balls that were intercepted by Cleveland.

4. The Ravens are giving away first down, and that has to change.

Other than Jackson throwing to the wrong team, if you want to know why the Ravens are scuffling on offense, look no further than first down. The Ravens too often are getting little to nothing on first down, leaving them in second- and third-and-long situations frequently.

That puts more pressure on the offensive linemen to hold off rushers who know a pass is coming, and it puts more pressure on Jackson to execute through the air since this group of running backs doesn’t scare anyone and is not likely to be converting a third-and-long run.

Against the Browns, the Ravens had nine first-down runs that gained 1 yard or less, and two others that gained 2 yards. Granted, later in the game Devonta Freeman had a couple of decent first-down runs, and Jackson ran for 11 on a designed keeper.

But the Ravens’ running backs again found little traction, totaling 67 yards on 25 carries. Too often, they are getting nowhere on first down, giving the Ravens essentially two plays instead of three to try to get 10 yards.

To their credit, the Ravens did slog out 148 rushing yards on 43 carries, with Jackson (17-68) doing much of the damage, but the Ravens need to change things up on first down for this offense to evolve.

5. It’s Steeler Week, and the Ravens can pretty much finish Pittsburgh with a win.

The Ravens continue a season-defining stretch next week at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh against a desperate Steelers team that got routed by the Cincinnati Bengals this week (41-10) and find their season on the brink at 5-5-1. Then the Ravens face these Browns all over again in Cleveland Dec. 11. The Browns will be coming off their bye, giving them the strange scheduling quirk of facing the Ravens in consecutive games.

First come the Steelers, who looked all but done as the Bengals ran roughshod over them in Cincinnati Nov. 28. A win by the Ravens would give them an almost insurmountable edge relative to Pittsburgh, which would fall to last place in the AFC North.

The demise of Mike Tomlin, Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers has been greatly exaggerated before, and their desperation, plus the presence of their archrivals in purple and black, will give them plenty of motivation next weekend.

But the Ravens have a chance to all but finish the Steelers’ division title hopes at Heinz Field.

Photo Credit: Kenya Allen/PressBox

Bo Smolka

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