Mark Clayton caught just four passes on Sunday evening, but each one was electric. They got things started. They kept drives alive. More importantly, they led to points.
And for all intents and purposes, it was Mark Clayton's play that helped seal a playoff berth for the 2008 Baltimore Ravens.
"Mark had some huge catches, tough catches," head coach John Harbaugh said of the receiver's performance. "Those are the kind of plays that make a difference in a game. That gives you a chance to score points."
It began on the game's opening drive. Starting with the ball, the Ravens hoped to convert an early strike, demoralizing their lame duck opponent and putting the game away early. On first-and-10 from their own 32, quarterback Joe Flacco targeted Clayton for that spark.
Flacco's deep ball appeared to get caught in the wind, or it may have put six on the board for Baltimore right there. Nevertheless, the fourth-year receiver spun his defender around and came back to make the catch at the Jacksonville 20-yard line, putting the Ravens in position for a field goal to get them on the board first.
The score kept the capacity crowd of 71,366 buzzing, but it did not bury the Jaguars quite the way the Ravens had hoped. Slowly winning the field position battle, Jacksonville took over at midfield with 3:02 left in the first quarter and, in five plays and just over two minutes, steered their way to paydirt. The party atmosphere in Baltimore was, at least for a moment, dampened.
The Jaguars' touchdown may have quieted the crowd, but it awakened the slow-starting Ravens offense. Thanks in large part to Clayton, the game was all but decided by the end of the half.
Baltimore came out firing on their first possession of the period. After a perfectly-placed toss to Willis McGahee earned the team a first down at the Jaguars' 45-yard line, Flacco once again called Clayton's number. Lofting it towards the right, Clayton leapt and came down with the catch, landing directly on the 20.
This time, the Ravens did not settle for three points. After a pass to Derrick Mason put the Ravens in first-and-goal, two Le'Ron McClain carries put Baltimore in the end zone. The Ravens were back on top, this time to stay.
Clayton's third reception once again gave the Ravens a chance to put up seven. On third-and-eight from the Jaguars' 17-yard line, Flacco found the Oklahoma product near the sticks. As he was dragged down, Clayton lunged forward, extending the ball just far enough to earn a first down. Two plays later, it was McGahee who pounded the rock home, and the Ravens were up 17-7.
The first three catches had swung momentum squarely over to the Ravens. The fourth broke things open.
With 2:05 to play in the half, the Ravens took over 71 yards from the end zone. Four plays later, they had crossed midfield and were once again looking to put points on the board with less than a minute to go.
Again, the Ravens showed a level of confidence and aggression not often seen in previous seasons. The rookie quarterback – who played like a veteran from Opening Day – aired out another one in Clayton's direction. As Harbaugh put it after the game, the soaring pass "was just skydiving straight down." Clayton grabbed position under it, and slid down with the catch a yard away from the end zone. Again, it was McClain who finished the drive.
"That was a beautiful ball," Clayton said of the pass. "Joe threw a really nice ball there. He's impressive. He does some really good stuff with the ball. He makes it easy to win."
On the other end of the toss, Flacco was equally as impressed with his receiver.
"Anytime you're seeing guys make plays like that it's a lot of fun to be back there and throwing the ball to them," he said. "I think we were trying to get pretty good chunks [of yardage] on them, and we did, so it was good to see it."
It was not even halftime yet, but Clayton's day was complete. Thanks to him, so was Jacksonville's.
Clayton's 128 yards was his second-highest output of the season. Although he did not come away with a touchdown of his own, it was all the same to him.
"Our mentality has been that we are a family," Clayton explained. "Play for the guy next to you. It's that will that drives you. It feels good to put my team in a position to get a score."
Now, Clayton and the Ravens will get a chance to play for one another again next week, when they open up the playoffs in Miami against the Dolphins.
"You do feel refreshed," Clayton said with a smile after the team had officially clinched its playoff spot. "We've been working hard, and that was our goal – to just get in the show. We'll take that. We still understand that we still have a lot of room for improvement. So we'll take that refreshment and that energy and go in this week and work hard to put an even better product on the field."
It doesn't get much better than Mark Clayton's performance on Sunday. He put his team in position to succeed and helped them earn a trip to the playoffs.