Lamar Jackson wasn’t perfect Sunday, and that was fine. In 2020, after an offseason marred by nationwide suffering and strife, he could be forgiven for that. The Ravens were playing the Cleveland Browns amid a pandemic. The fans at M&T Bank Stadium were gone.
For at least one afternoon, though, over three hours of brilliance, the NFL’s reigning Most Valuable Player offered a reminder of normalcy, a link to a past without the coronavirus. In a 38-6 win over a supposed AFC North contender, the Lamar Jackson of 2020 looked a lot like the Lamar Jackson of 2019, and maybe even better.
Jackson threw for 275 yards and three touchdowns. He completed 80 percent of his passes, and 10 in a row at one point. He finished with a team-high 45 rushing yards. He put on a show for the chloroplast fan cutouts and inflatable tube men who filled out the stadium’s end-zone seating and the 15-member band that played to a silent crowd.
Until the Ravens return to the playoffs, and perhaps even march on to a Super Bowl, their stunning home playoff loss to the Tennessee Titans will hang over Jackson’s season like a shadow. That is his burden. But if defenses have learned anything from that upset, or from the 12 straight Ravens wins that preceded it, their accumulated knowledge seemed lost on the Browns in Week 1.
“Lamar Jackson just played a phenomenal game,” said coach John Harbaugh, who improved to 21-4 against Cleveland. “He just played a top-level game in every single way, and I think he was probably the biggest difference in the game.”
With the blowout victory, the Ravens have won five straight season openers and 13 straight regular-season games, the most since the Carolina Panthers won 18 in a row over the 2014 and 2015 seasons. Nine wins in that stretch have been by double digits.
In many ways, Sunday was a reprisal of Jackson’s first Week 1 start, when he posted his first of two perfect passer ratings last year in a 59-10 road win over the Miami Dolphins. In South Florida, Jackson’s favorite targets, wide receiver Marquise “Hollywood” Brown and tight end Mark Andrews, had combined for 255 yards and three touchdowns. In Baltimore, they went for 159 yards and two scores. The Dolphins had averaged a measly 4.3 yards per play in 2019; the Browns, just 4.5.
But this opener was unlike any other before it. Half an hour before kickoff, the Ravens lined up across the goal-line of one end zone for the playing of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” a song often referred to as the Black national anthem. When the Cardinal Shehan School’s choir performed “The Star-Spangled Banner,” they did it from another fan-free Ravens venue — the old Memorial Stadium, where the team kicked off its first season 25 years ago.
It was an only-in-2020 scene: one part social distancing, one part social justice.
“We respect and support our players’ right to protest peacefully,” owner Steve Bisciotti said in a statement. “This was a demonstration for justice and equality for all Americans. These are core values we can all support.”
Not even the most expected of Sunday outcomes — Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield’s opening-drive interception, followed by Jackson’s opening-drive touchdown pass — could distract from the oddity of the afternoon.
Harbaugh wore a hat and gaiter pulled up so high that only his eyes were visible. Photographers shot from the vacant seating bowl. CBS sideline reporter Evan Washburn paced the first row, like a kid looking for an autograph. Ravens staff members waved a giant flag in four corners of the stadium. Referee Ronald Torbert removed his face mask only to announce calls.
At one point late in the first half, Ravens outside linebacker Matthew Judon started waving his hands, as if he were asking the crowd to get louder. All he got was the prerecorded crowd noise mandated by the NFL, played so quietly that both teams could hear the other’s presnap checks.
“It is B.Y.O.E. — bring your own energy,” said Ravens defensive end Calais Campbell, whose pass deflection helped cornerback Marlon Humphrey force the game’s first turnover. “And that’s what we did today. Coach [Harbaugh] did a good job to get us prepared. We have a lot of guys on the team who took turns bringing the energy for us, and we could feed off of it.”
No preseason? No problem. On defense, even with spotty run stopping (138 yards allowed, 5.1 yards per carry) and an inconsistent pass rush (two sacks and six quarterback hits on 41 drop-backs), the Ravens held Cleveland to 306 yards of total offense. Mayfield finished with 189 yards on 21-for-39 passing, including a touchdown and an interception.
After running over the Ravens on their third possession for their lone scoring drive, the Browns moved past the Ravens’ 30-yard line just twice. All they got was a missed 41-yard field-goal attempt and a turnover on downs.
“Anytime our number is called, we’re coming to play and coming to dominate,” said first-round pick Patrick Queen, who finished with a team-high eight tackles, a sack and a forced fumble in his first career start at inside linebacker. “Everybody that comes in, they’re going to get our all, and that’s all we can ask as a team.”
With Jackson (20-for-25, 152.1 passer rating) at the controls, an offense that finished last season with the NFL’s most efficient rushing and passing attacks did not disappoint. The Ravens seized on good field position — they had three touchdown drives of 50 yards or fewer — and made the most of bad spots, too.
In the second quarter, they started to put the Browns away with a 10-play, 99-yard trek, only their second touchdown drive of that length in franchise history. The next time they got the ball, they covered 69 yards in seven plays and just 35 seconds. Jackson’s second touchdown pass to Andrews extended the Ravens’ lead to 24-6 just before halftime.
“It’s just hard work and dedication,” said Jackson, who improved to 20-3 as a starter. “It started with the COVID, our guys coming down [to South Florida in the offseason], trying to get some chemistry down pat. The quick turnaround with [training] camp, we started getting chemistry there, and our guys just dialed in, and they helped me out a lot, made my job a lot easier.”
“The guy is incredible; he was incredible last year,” said Andrews, who had five catches for 58 yards and two scores, trailing Brown (five catches for 101 yards) and wide receiver Willie Snead IV (four catches for 64 yards and a touchdown). “To me, he’s obviously the best player in the world, and his arm reflects that. It reflected that last year; it’s this year as well. He’s going to continue to grow, and he has. It’s just a blessing to be able to play with him.”
As the Ravens lamented afterward in one video conference call after another, this was far from their best. Patrick Ricard fumbled on a third-and-1 fullback dive one play after Jackson scrambled just short of the sticks. The offensive line didn’t have the same push it did with guard Marshal Yanda last year. Safety Chuck Clark dropped a would-be interception. There were probably too many defensive penalties for coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale’s liking.
But for the Ravens’ first game against another team in nine months, this was a good start. This was what Jackson needed, what the fan base that idolizes him needed — another special moment. Some weeks, it’s a perfect passer rating. On others, it’s a highlight-reel run. Sunday, it was a reprieve from the outside world.
“That guy, he’s probably not going to ever change,” said Brown, Jackson’s close friend. “All he wants is to win Super Bowls. Head down and go to work.”