The Ravens are heading into a stretch of three-straight games against division leaders that will largely determine their postseason positioning.
Though they're alone atop the AFC, there's not much breathing room. Here are my thoughts, all in 50 words or less:
Lamar Jackson is better now than he was in his 2019 MVP season and it's not close. Then, Jackson and the revolutionary Ravens ambushed the league because they were so unique. Now, Jackson is a fully formed quarterback operating at a high level with so much more on his plate.
Jackson's stats won't compare to what he did in 2019, when he led the league with 36 touchdown passes and broke the single-season quarterback rushing record. The only category he'll top will be in passing yards (possibly this Sunday). Stats aren't everything. He's been excellent week in and week out.
It's tough to put a finger on what it is exactly, but the vibes around Jackson are great. They're way better than last year, when the contract was looming, the offense wasn't fresh, and Jackson was injured again down the stretch. Last week's comeback win was good for the soul.
The Ravens' Super Bowl window is open right now. Time to climb through it. The Chiefs are scuffling and the Bengals are Burrow-less. The conference is there for the taking. The Ravens will have to bid farewell to key players in free agency this offseason. I sense urgency from Lamar.
Home-field advantage would be sweet given the atmosphere at M&T Bank Stadium, but the Ravens first must lock up the division. The Browns are only two games back. If the Ravens drop two of their remaining four games and Cleveland wins out, the Ravens start the playoffs on the road.
Last week, there was lots of concern about Ronnie Stanley. This week, it's Marlon Humphrey. Both players had tough moments in their first games back from injuries. Stanley had a rebound performance last week and I expect Humphrey will do the same. This is a get-right game for him.
Baltimore's run defense is the other concern coming out of last week. Kyren Williams recorded 107 of his 113 rushing yards against less than eight defenders in the box. If the Ravens must load up to stop the run, they can, but Mike Macdonald doesn't want to be forced to.
Kyle Hamilton's value was put in even more perspective this week when faced with the prospect of not having him. The fact that Hamilton plays so many positions and does so much well in this defense makes him borderline indispensable. Hamilton vs. Evan Engram will be fun to watch Sunday.
Rashod Bateman is getting more separation than any other receiver in the league. It's hard to argue for more targets considering Odell Beckham Jr. and Zay Flowers are red hot. But mark my words: Bateman is going to get loose and make a game-changing play at some point this year.
Jackson conquered rainy conditions last week. In Jacksonville, wind will be the bigger issue. High winds are even more difficult to throw the ball in than rain. Though Jacksonville's secondary has been its weakness, it might be a good week to get Keaton Mitchell and the ground game going.
The Ravens had a 99.1% chance of winning last year's game in Jacksonville when a Calais Campbell sack forced a third-and-21. Blowing that lead was a gut punch to the Ravens defense that it has not forgotten. Coming off a substandard performance last week, this defense is double hungry.
There are about a dozen teams around the league operating with a backup quarterback, emphasizing the importance of having a strong No. 2. The Ravens' move to snipe Malik Cunningham off the Patriots' practice squad shows their forward thinking and prioritizing of the position.
It's so hard not to root for Joe Flacco as he tries to steer the Browns into the playoffs. The story is incredible, and Joe is just so darn likeable. Seeing him savor his return to the NFL makes this Grinch's heart grow this Holiday season – even for Cleveland.