Lamar Jackson makes MVP case in Ravens' victory over Patriots

BALTIMORE -- His momentum stopped and, for a split second, so did 71,157 heartbeats at M&T Bank Stadium, and so many more across the football universe. Lamar Jackson was so close to putting away the New England Patriots and securing a signature victory on Sunday Night Football, but with his back to the goal line and defenders all around him, the Baltimore Ravens' second-year quarterback was oh-so-far.

In somewhat of a role reversal, Jackson needed a lift -- and oh man, did he get one. Suddenly, Orlando Brown Jr., the Ravens' 6-foot-8, 355-pound right tackle, was pulling Jackson up by his shoulder pads, and then by his neck. Given new life on this third-and-goal play with 3:12 remaining, Jackson seized the moment, reaching behind him with the football to break the plane as he fell to the turf.

The touchdown put the final touches on a 37-20 triumph over the previously undefeated Patriots and catapulted Jackson's rapidly rising reputation to uncharted heights.

"MVP, bro," Ravens safety Earl Thomas, a six-time Pro Bowl selection, declared after Jackson's biggest victory to date, one which sent legendary counterpart Tom Brady and the rest of the Patriots (8-1) home with their first defeat since last December. "He's separating himself right now, and it's pretty special to watch."

On a supercharged Sunday night in Charm City, the Ravens (6-2) ripped through the Patriots' previously impenetrable defense to take a 17-0 lead early in the second quarter, only to let them back in the game following a pair of fumbles. Baltimore then survived an onslaught of hurry-up Brady brilliance, staying ahead thanks to a 70-yard fumble return for a touchdown early in the second half by cornerback Marlon Humphrey.

Another Brady comeback attempt was thwarted by Thomas' fourth-quarter interception, sandwiched between a pair of 14-play scoring drives engineered by the 22-year-old budding star who was absolutely not awed by the magnitude of the moment.

Never mind that crazy stat thrown around before the game -- Patriots coach Bill Belichick had won 24 consecutive games against quarterbacks under the age of 25 -- or the fact that this was a marquee matchup against a six-time Super Bowl champion and living legend.

"It's pretty cool," Jackson said of beating Brady and the Pats, "but I don't care about the person I'm playing against and I don't care if it's a prime-time game or a 1 o'clock game. I'm just trying to win. That's all that matters."

In leading the Ravens to their fourth consecutive victory, Jackson played a smooth, clutch game against a Pats defense that had put up historically potent numbers during the first half of the season. He completed 17-of-23 passes for 163 yards and a touchdown -- a 5-yard connection with Nick Boyle on the first play of the fourth quarter, fulfilling a personal mission to get the fifth-year tight end into the end zone -- and ran 16 times for 61 yards and two more scores.

With running back Mark Ingram gaining 115 yards on 15 carries, Baltimore's balanced attack kept the Patriots off-balance for much of the game. And when Brady (30 for 46, 285 yards, one TD, one interception), as he so often has in the past, brought New England back and threatened to hijack the moment, Jackson didn't flinch.

"The kid -- he's so tough," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said outside his small office just beyond the team's locker room. "He's smart. He's got a great feel for the game. And he learns fast. One of the things I've noticed about him is he never makes the same mistake twice."

On a night when the Patriots made some uncharacteristic mistakes, with a trio of third-down penalties that extended drives (including a neutral-zone infraction on a field-goal attempt that set up the game's first touchdown), Jackson continually made them pay.

His biggest throw came midway through the third quarter, after Baltimore's defense had been on the field for 19 consecutive snaps (most of them of the no-huddle variety) to start the second half. Granted, one of those plays had resulted in a Ravens touchdown: linebacker Patrick Onwuasor forced Julian Edelman to fumble after a short catch and Humphrey scooped it up and raced 70 yards for the score, the perfect homage to Hall of Fame safety Ed Reed on a night he was honored at halftime.

Yet after James White's 1-yard touchdown run cut the Baltimore lead to 24-20 with 8:03 left in the third quarter, the Pats seemed primed to take over the game.

The Ravens' defense was dog-tired, and a quick and fruitless Baltimore possession could have spelled disaster. Two plays into the Ravens' next drive, they faced a third-and-5 at their 24, and the Patriots deployed their Cover Zero alignment that has been giving opposing offenses fits all season. Jackson read it, recognized a potential mismatch and threw a high pass to tight end Mark Andrews, who was running a corner route to the left sideline. The 6-5 Andrews, with a six-inch height advantage over cornerback Terrence Brooks, went up and made the 18-yard reception while falling backwards.

"We had to keep our defense off the field, and keep the Patriots off the field," Jackson said. "I just had to give him a ball he could catch. He made a great play."

Eleven plays later, Jackson flipped a short pass to Boyle, who barreled into the end zone to give Baltimore a 30-20 lead with 14:54 remaining, setting off a wild celebration among teammates in recognition of Boyle's first career touchdown.

"I got more satisfaction from all my teammates celebrating with me than I did from actually scoring," Boyle said.

Even after Thomas' interception gave the Ravens the ball back, and they drove to the brink of the end zone, the fear of a Brady-led comeback persisted.

"It's Tom, and he does some miraculous s---," said cornerback Marcus Peters, acquired in a mid-October trade with the Los Angeles Rams. "That's why he's the best quarterback to ever play this f------ game; you feel me? But Lamar, he's got heart. Say no more. No matter how many times people question him, he finds a way. His mentality is, I'm gonna do what's best for the Baltimore Ravens -- whatever it takes."

On this night, it took aggressive game plans on both sides of the ball, with offensive coordinator Greg Roman employing a varied, creative attack and defensive coordinator Don Martindale challenging Brady with previously unused packages and blitzing him about half the time.

Harbaugh, who oversees it all, provided the proper motivational touches, one of which he pulled from his body during our conversation in the hallway behind the locker room. Removing a black Roger Ximenez belt with purple stitches from his grey Lululemon pants, Harbaugh joked, "Maybe this is what they were playing for. Some of the guys noticed the belt at the beginning of the year and thought it was really cool. I told them, 'If we get to 6-2 (or better) at the halfway point, I'll get you all belts.' "

Will Harbaugh follow through?

"Oh yeah," he said. "It might be expensive, but they're getting belts."

It was the same resolve Harbaugh's quarterback -- and his second-year right tackle -- showed on the game-clinching touchdown.

When Jackson's momentum was stopped on that pivotal third-and-goal run, it appeared as though Harbaugh would have a fourth-down decision to make -- with a 10-point lead, three minutes remaining and a yard to go. Instead, Jackson and Brown decided to end things then and there.

After the game, Jackson still wasn't clear on how it had happened. Shortly after entering the locker room, I told Jackson, "I don't know how you scored on that play."

"Me either!" he said. "It was crazy."

Brown, the teammate who gave Jackson a pair of oversized helping hands, expressed similar surprise about the outcome.

"Dawg, it was just instincts," he said. "I saw him stopped, and I knew we were on the goal line. I knew what was at stake. I just pulled him as hard as I could."

Halfway through what may be shaping up as a special season, the Ravens are pulling together and fighting for every inch -- and their young quarterback has never seemed so valuable.

Follow Michael Silver on Twitter @mikesilver.

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