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Lamar Jackson creating playoff contenders out of Ravens

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CARSON, Calif. -- He had just run his record as an NFL starter to 5-1, and passed for a career-high 204 yards. And now, after a season-defining road victory that may well have transformed the Baltimore Ravens from playoff wannabes to AFC North champions, Lamar Jackson was asked to assess the state of his team -- and he wasn't running from the truth.

"Oh yeah -- we're the real deal," Jackson told me as he stood alone at his locker Saturday night at StubHub Center, about 30 minutes after the Ravens' 22-10 victory over the Los Angeles Chargers. "And the thing is, we've still got a lot to work on, and we can get a lot better."

Facing a Chargers (11-4) team coming off consecutive comeback road victories against formidable foes, and thus being heralded as a legitimate Super Bowl contender, the Ravens (9-6) picked a great time to be good. Had Baltimore lost, its path to a potential wild-card berth was filled with peril. With the win, the Ravens can now clinch a playoff spot by defeating the Cleveland Browns at home next Sunday, and any stumble by the Pittsburgh Steelers (8-5-1) -- who play the NFC-leading Saints in New Orleans on Sunday -- would give them an opening to capture the division.

Carried by the NFL's top-ranked defense, and energized over the past month-and-a-half by their tough-to-defend rookie quarterback, the Ravens now have good reason to believe in their prospects for postseason grandeur.

"It's kind of like a pitcher with a no-hitter -- we're not gonna talk about it," said the eldest and most decorated Baltimore position player, 16th-year veteran pass rusher Terrell Suggs, who helped lead a sustained assault on Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers. "This is a great win, and momentum is contagious. When you get momentum, it can snowball. But we still haven't painted our Sistine Chapel yet."

If the Ravens have a Michelangelo, it's 11th-year head coach John Harbaugh, whose future with the team had been the subject of much speculation since before the start of the 2018 campaign. In an effort to silence the chatter, the team issued a statement Friday night declaring that Harbaugh would return for the 2019 season and that the two sides were "working on an extension to his existing contract."

If the goal was to decrease the pressure on Harbaugh and his players before their biggest game of the season -- well, it worked. As he stood in the corner of the south end zone a couple of hours before the game, the coach was loose and upbeat, acknowledging that his team had yet to produce a signature victory in 2018.

"We've been close," he said. "We just haven't been able to break through. Obviously, time is running out, and we need to do that."

Then the game began, and the Ravens forced the issue from the jump. On the first play from scrimmage, Rivers (23 of 37, 181 yards, no touchdowns, two interceptions) threw deep down the right sideline for receiver Mike Williams, but cornerback Brandon Carr ripped the ball out of the air and landed at the Baltimore 48-yard-line.

On the next play, rookie running back Gus Edwards took a handoff from Jackson, ripped through the middle of the line and rambled 43 yards to the L.A. 9-yard-line. The Ravens, however, would settle for the first of Justin Tucker's three field goals, setting a tone for a night on which they would repeatedly allow the Chargers to hang around.

Despite dominating the first half, Baltimore carried only a 6-3 lead into the third quarter -- then squandered it almost immediately, with running back Kenneth Dixon fumbling the ball away on the first play from scrimmage, and the Chargers reaching the end zone with three consecutive Melvin Gordon runs to take a 10-6 lead.

That sent many -- OK, some -- of the 25,571 fans at StubHub Center into a frenzy. And it merely brought out Jackson's inner chill.

Taking over at his own 15-yard line, Jackson connected with receiver John Brown on a 17-yard throw. Then Jackson took a shotgun snap, faked a handoff to Dixon and lofted a gorgeous touch pass to rookie tight end Mark Andrews, who caught it in stride at the Chargers' 40-yard-line, stiff-armed safety Jahleel Addae to the turf 10 yards later and kept right on going for a 68-yard touchdown.

"What? That was a crazy stiff arm," Jackson said. "When I let it go, I knew what time it was."

Said Andrews: "The throw was incredible -- that's why I was able to take it and score. People say, 'He's a running quarterback.' They're wrong. He's a quarterback."

As with his previous starts, Jackson (12 of 22, 204 yards) forced the Chargers to deal with him as a running threat, carrying 13 times. Except for a 27-yard run on a third-and-2 play late in the first quarter, he was essentially contained, netting just 12 yards on his other 12 carries. However, the threat of Jackson as a ball-carrier opened up opportunities for Edwards (14 carries, 92 yards) and Dixon (eight carries, 28 yards) and helped set up favorable matchups via play-action.

"Our defense is balling out of control, and Lamar's controlling the game," said veteran receiver Michael Crabtree, who had one catch for 20 yards. "He's a baller, bro. You want to catch passes; you want to have 100-yard games. But a win is a win. And if we lost, it was gonna be bad bad."

Asked about Jackson's impact on opposing defenses, and how the Ravens are using it to their advantage, Crabtree laughed and said, "You can't explain what you can't understand. The thing is, if I told you, I'd have to kill you."

Despite being manhandled by the Ravens' defense all night, the Chargers still had life with three minutes left in the game, when they took over at the Baltimore 39 (following a 24-yard punt return by Desmond King) trailing only 16-10. Having pulled out come-from-behind victories at Pittsburgh and Kansas City in its previous two games, LA now had a golden opportunity to complete the trifecta.

"That was the moment," Harbaugh said later. "And our defense was ready."

After a holding penalty pushed L.A. back 10 yards, Rivers fired an 11-yard pass to his trustiest target: 16th-year tight end Antonio Gates, a future Hall of Famer who lunged forward to the Baltimore 38. Ravens linebacker Patrick Onwuasor (who had two of the team's four sacks) swooped in and punched the ball out just before Gates' knee hit the turf, and cornerback Tavon Young picked up and sprinted 62 yards for the game-clinching touchdown.

"That was the game right there," Jackson said.

It was a tour de force performance by a Ravens defense that allowed just 198 yards and, at game's end, remained the league's top-ranked unit in terms of scoring (17.5 points per game) and total yards allowed (284.1 per game). And yet, that stellar defense wasn't good enough to keep the Ravens from a 4-5 start. It wasn't until veteran quarterback Joe Flacco suffered a hip injury -- and Jackson, the team's first-round pick out of Louisville, was forced into the lineup -- that Baltimore began to find its stride.

Now, Flacco is once again healthy, but the Ravens are happily riding with Jackson, while opposing defenses struggle to defend Baltimore's run-heavy attack.

"He was a pain in the ass all camp for us," Suggs said of Jackson. "I'm glad he's somebody else's problem now."

Said Young: "I'm glad he's on our team ... cause who would want to play against him?"

"You still have to stop him," Chargers coach Anthony Lynn said of Jackson. "And yes, he can throw."

Flacco was the starter back in early October when the Ravens dropped a 12-9 decision to the Browns in overtime. Winning the rematch is all that stands between Baltimore and its first playoff appearance since 2014 -- but Harbaugh would be the last coach to take such an outcome for granted.

Remember: Last December, the Ravens needed only to win a home game against the Bengals to reach the postseason, but Cincinnati -- which had already been eliminated from contention -- pulled off a dramatic, 31-27 victory on Andy Dalton's 49-yard touchdown pass to Tyler Boyd on fourth-and-12 with 44 seconds remaining.

"I probably won't have to bring that up much, because everybody here is very aware of it," Harbaugh said as he left the locker room Saturday night and walked toward the team bus. "We've got to play our best game of the year on Sunday -- that's the bottom line. We're in a good place. I love the way we battle. Now we have to be at our very best."

That's the deal -- and let the record show that on a crucial Saturday night in Southern California, things got very real for the Ravens and their rookie quarterback.

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