Lamar Jackson wasn’t looking to run out of bounds Sunday. He was looking to run into the playoffs.
It was an attitude that permeated the Ravens’ backfield as Jackson, Kenneth Dixon and Gus Edwards ran as if their season was on the line. Because it was.
With the Ravens needing a victory to reach the playoffs, their running game produced a season-high 296 yards, the third most in franchise history, in a playoff-clinching 26-24 victory over the Cleveland Browns.
Since Jackson became the starting quarterback, the Ravens’ running game has been a force. But this was next-level. Jackson ran for two touchdowns, putting moves on defenders that left them grabbing for air. Dixon ran for a career-high 117 yards on just 12 carries. Edwards (12 carries, 76 yards) continued to power through holes and break tackles, picking up critical yards that kept drives moving.
Baltimore has the best running attack of any team in the playoffs, something Browns Head Coach Gregg Williams had already seen on film. The Browns used former Ravens quarterback Tyrod Taylor to emulate Jackson in practice, and Williams thought the Browns could handle it. Until the game started.
“Until you are on the field and see how quick Lamar Jackson is, and understand his ability to make plays and make some people miss out in space,” Williams said. “We had the space populated at times. We just didn’t make the plays.”
Jackson routinely makes plays, some of them spectacular. He is the fastest quarterback in the NFL, capable of turning any play into a scoring play. Both of his touchdown runs were Lamar being Lamar.
He showed an extra gear of speed on his first touchdown, a 25-yard scamper that gave Baltimore a 10-7 lead. After faking a handoff to Ty Montgomery, Jackson found a seam in the Browns’ defensive line and exploded toward the end zone. Once Jackson got past the first wave of Cleveland defenders, he could have waved goodbye. Nobody was going to catch him.
On his second touchdown, an 8-yard run in the second quarter, Jackson made a jump-hop move at the 5-yard line, then darted into the end zone untouched. It was another move you can’t teach, and another move the Browns couldn’t stop. Little wonder Jackson’s jersey has become the hottest seller in town, as this victory lifted his record to 6-1 as a starting quarterback.
“It means a lot to me,” Jackson said about his popularity in Baltimore, and why he stopped to interact with some fans on the way to the locker room. “Coming to a new city, a new town, you have to win the fans over. It’s really their stadium, they’re the ones filling up the seats, coming and supporting us, so anytime I can interact with them, I’m going to do it every time.”
Jackson was still beating himself up after the game about his biggest mistake, a fumble near the goal line in the second quarter as he tried to reach the ball over the goal line. The Browns recovered, costing the Ravens a chance to go ahead, 27-7. Jackson has 12 fumbles this season, and had the Ravens lost, that goal-line turnover would have haunted Jackson all offseason.
“I have to do something,” Jackson said of his fumbles, looking at his hands. “I might get on the JUGS machine. That’s ridiculous. I’m ticked off.”
While Jackson rushing for 90 yards was not a surprise, Dixon running for 117 yards was. The Ravens have always been aware of Dixon’s talent, but staying healthy has been an issue and he spent most of this season on injured reserve. Since rejoining the team, Dixon has quickly emerged as the No. 2 back behind Edwards, and this performance was Dixon’s best. He had never run for 100 yards in his three-year career.
He was determined and fiery, breaking tackles and gesturing to the crowd after several runs. NFL success hasn’t come easily for Dixon, but he finally seems ready to capitalize on this opportunity.
“It was a great journey,” Dixon said. “I am thankful for everything that happened. It absolutely grew me up as a man. I am grateful for the team sticking beside me through everything. The injuries, the off-the-field issues. I am just happy to be here.”
The Ravens are happy to be playoff bound, with their running game a force to be reckoned with. The Chargers have already seen it in Week 16, when Edwards ran for 92 yards, Jackson ran for 39, and Dixon ran for 28. That was better than how Cleveland fared Sunday, but it wasn’t enough for the Chargers to win.
Both teams will adjust entering the playoff game, but Jackson is not going to get any slower. Edwards and Dixon will not run with any less passion, not in the first playoff game of their careers.
The Ravens’ running game has become an anchor they can lean on. And in their biggest game of the regular season, it helped carry them to the playoffs.
“It feels great. That’s what we set out to be way back out in the summer,” Dixon said. “One of our goals was accomplished.”