Owings Mills, Maryland — Toward the end of the Baltimore Ravens’ 17-10 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC Championship Game, an obviously angry Lamar Jackson sat on the bench, gazed up at the sky, and rested both hands on his head.
For one of the few occasions this season, the quarterback did not receive chanting of “MVP” at the game’s end. What awaited him was the criticism that comes with being the NFL’s most controversial player once more.
Jackson’s latest problems in a postseason game sparked the most pressing concern about his legacy: Will Jackson ever lead Baltimore to the Super Bowl?
As the Ravens took away their lockers this week, Jackson’s teammates rallied behind the embattled NFL MVP candidate.
“I don’t think Lamar cares, and I don’t care what other people say outside of this building,” Ravens safety Kyle Hamilton said. “Heavy is the head that wears the crown.” So, there are a lot of people out there who want somebody like Lamar to fail, but we all know he’s the best player in the game.”
Jackson elevated his game this season by improving his passing accuracy while still making big plays as a rusher. He was awarded first-team All-Pro for the second time.
However, of the 15 quarterbacks who have received multiple first-team All-Pro choices in the Super Bowl era, only Jackson and Dan Fouts have never started one.
This is the most confounding aspect of Jackson’s six-year career: he can seem electrifying throughout the regular season while making mistakes in the postseason. Baltimore has scored more than 20 points in 60 of Jackson’s 77 regular-season starts. Jackson has led the Ravens to more than 20 points in one out of six playoff games.
“He’s the leader of this team,” Ravens guard Kevin Zeitler said. “He has a fiery personality. He cares more than everyone else. When you see it, I believe it becomes clear. Whatever people say, I know he’ll be back, ready to work when the time comes, and lead us all the way.”
Jackson had a solid performance against the Chiefs, going 20-of-37 for 272 passing yards and 54 rushing. His performance was not.
Jackson still made great plays, such as collecting his own deflected throw for a 13-yard gain, but he didn’t do enough from the pocket to propel the Ravens to their first Super Bowl appearance since 2012.
He overthrew deep targets while throwing low to intermediate ones. He kept the ball too long and did not feel the pressure from behind during a strip-sack in the second quarter. Then, with Baltimore behind 17-7 in the fourth quarter, he threw an interception in the end zone with three Kansas City defenders surrounding tight end Isaiah Likely.
After the game, Jackson acknowledged being “mad” about another missed playoff opportunity as the AFC’s No. 1 seed and became defensive when asked if he was attempting to do too much on the field.
“No. “We’re trying to win,” Jackson responded. “I don’t believe you’re doing too much when you strive to win out there. “You thought so?”
Jackson is not the only one to take the blame.
In their loss on Sunday, the Ravens lacked composure. Baltimore’s 95 penalty yards were the highest it has had in 22 postseason games under coach John Harbaugh.
The Ravens, who had the NFL’s best rushing attack this season, abandoned their ground game. Baltimore turned the ball over to running backs six times and called 21 consecutive pass plays in the second half.
Wide receiver Zay Flowers fumbled on the goal line on the first play of the fourth quarter.
“It’s not a one-man show,” Ravens middle linebacker Roquan Smith explained. “It’s a collective effort. It’s a team effort that yields results.”
The surprise thing was that Jackson appeared to have turned a corner after losing three of his first four postseason games. In the 34-19 divisional round victory over the Houston Texans, Jackson took command of the second half and became the fifth player in NFL history to record two touchdown passes and two rushing touchdowns in the same playoff game.
But he reverted back to his frustrating playoff form in the AFC Championship Game. Over the past decade, Jackson’s 53.1 Total QBR in the playoffs ranks 30th — and fourth worst among quarterbacks with at least three playoff starts. He has totaled nine touchdowns (six passing, three rushing) and nine turnovers (six interceptions, three fumbles).
“I love him regardless of how that game shook out,” Ravens outside linebacker Jadeveon Clowney said. “He’s like my brother forever. I’m glad I got to play with him; I enjoyed it. I enjoy him, and I enjoy everybody else in this locker room, but, ‘[I’d tell him to] keep your head up.’ I dealt with that scrutiny throughout my career, and I just kept my head up, keeping the people around that love me and kept them close and build from there and continue to move forward.'”
A year ago, the Ravens were exiting their locker room after a playoff loss, unsure whether Jackson would be their quarterback. He was still in the middle of lengthy contract discussions.
Now, a season into Jackson’s five-year, $260 million contract, the focus has switched back to whether he can deliver on his draft day promise of leading Baltimore to the Super Bowl.
“We wouldn’t be here without him,” Flowers explained. “He understands there is affection for him in here and everywhere. We all have his back, and we’ll be right back at it next year, because he [and I] aren’t going anywhere. So let us get it.”