Can anyone derail Lamar Jackson and the white-hot Baltimore Ravens?

DDon't be fooled by the fact that the margin of victory was only 14 points. By eliminating the San Francisco 49ers on the road on Christmas Eve, the Baltimore Ravens emerged as the best team in the NFL, and their quarterback, Lamar Jackson, reclaimed his status as the league's best player.

Monday's bold step forward by the swashbuckling Ravens (12-3), who have won nine of their last 10 games and now have the NFL's best record, may come as a bit of a surprise to those who have been paying more attention this season to the Chiefs, Eagles, Cowboys and 49ers.

But the Baltimore defense, which chased San Francisco quarterback Brock Purdy into four interceptions on Monday before leaving the game with a nerve injury, is as ruthless as the Ravens defense was in the days when Ray Lewis and Ed Reed roamed the Earth.

The 49ers (11-4) entered the game as six-and-a-half-point favorites and Super Bowl frontrunners, but the Ravens, apparently outraged by a perceived lack of respect from the bookmakers, rolled into a three-touchdown lead and exposed San Francisco's shortcomings on a weekend that also saw the Chiefs (9-6) and Cowboys (10-5) lose, and the Eagles (11-4) narrowly scraped by the lousy Giants.

Baltimore's defense should have been stout, as the Ravens' defense has been going strong for 20 years under coach John Harbaugh. The surprise could be the return of Jackson, the Louisville quarterback in his sixth NFL season, who has overshadowed other QBs, even Patrick Mahomes, who, believe it or not, is actually subject to funks.

“I thought Lamar had an MVP performance tonight,” Harbaugh said after the game. “It takes a team to pull off a feat like that, but it also takes a player to play at that level, to play at an MVP level. Lamar was all over the field.”

Jackson, 26, has electrifying speed and has always thrown the ball much better than he has been given credit for. He won the league MVP award in his second season, 2019, but lost some luster when the Ravens were dismal that year and were eliminated in their playoff opener – at home.

As mobile as the man appears to be, knee and ankle sprains have caused him to miss 10 games over the past two seasons. Jackson has won just one playoff game, which came against the Titans almost three years ago (a game that was followed by a listless loss to Buffalo).

Baltimore quarterback Lamar Jackson's return to MVP form has Ravens fans dreaming big as the playoffs approach. Photo: Loren Elliott/Getty Images

Nevertheless, the Ravens signed Jackson to a five-year, $260 million contract extension in April. Only Patrick Mahomes of the Chiefs ($450 million), Joe Burrow of the Bengals ($275 million) and Justin Herbert of the Chargers ($262.5 million) have thicker contracts between NFL QBs.

In addition to giving him a huge raise, the Ravens also thought Jackson could use some help. Harbaugh, 61, in his 16th season as head coach of the Ravens, brought in a new offensive coordinator, Todd Monken, who most recently held the same position at the University of Georgia, the two-time national champion — with eight years of NFL experience.

The Ravens had a standout veteran in Mark Andrews, who suffered a cracked fibula and an ankle ligament injury in a win over Cincinnati in November. But Baltimore added other receivers, including veterans Odell Beckham Jr. and Nelson Agholor.

Furthermore, the Ravens used their first-round draft pick in April on wide receiver Xavien “Zay” Flowers, who caught 200 passes for 3,056 yards and 29 touchdowns in four years at Boston College. Flowers had nine catches for 72 yards and a touchdown Monday night.

Flowers, Beckham and Agholor have combined for 122 receptions for 1,513 yards and nine touchdowns this season. Tight end Isaac Lively has racked up 23 receptions and two touchdowns since replacing Andrews. Running back Gus Edwards has also increased his production.

But Jackson is still the centerpiece. He has 786 yards rushing this year, including a ridiculous, meandering and delightful (well, delicious if you weren't the 49ers) 30-yard open field drive through San Francisco's secondary that set up a field goal late in the first half.

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That gave Baltimore a 16-12 lead. Purdy had already thrown three interceptions. But Jackson’s best stuff came in the third quarter, even though the 49ers still had a shot to win the game. Baltimore’s three drives ended with two touchdowns and another field goal.

One of those drives was only one play and nine yards long, because it came right after Purdy’s fourth interception. Jackson, who does not throw the ball as much as he zips it, whipped a touchdown pass to Flowers. Baltimore had a 33-12 lead going into the fourth quarter.

Gus Edwards of the Baltimore Ravens stiff-arms Fred Warner of the San Francisco 49ers during the third quarter of Monday’s game at Levi’s Stadium.
Gus Edwards of the Baltimore Ravens stiff-arms Fred Warner of the San Francisco 49ers during the third quarter of Monday’s game at Levi’s Stadium. Photograph: Thearon W Henderson/Getty Images

Sam Darnold, the Jets’ QB Flop before Zach Wilson became their latest QB Flop, replaced Purdy after he was injured and threw a touchdown pass to make the game more interesting. But the Ravens sacked Darnold twice, then intercepted him on the Niners’ last drive.

And that was it. Jackson was soon being asked about the Ravens’ next big game, which comes Sunday at home against the Miami Dolphins (11-4), who beat the Cowboys on the last play of the game Sunday. He downplayed being included on the NFL MVP shortlist.

“It’s cool,” he told ESPN. “I’m honored to be in the conversation. I have one [MVP]. Man, we gotta keep winning, keep doing what we gotta do to make it to February. That's all.”

Later he said, “We got the W. I don't really care [personal] performance. I just want to win. That's what happened tonight. I received my gift at Christmas.

Christmas night didn't start well for Jackson. Baltimore went three-and-out on their first drive, and their second drive ended miserably when Jackson, trying to avoid being tackled in the end zone, knocked over an official, Alex Moore, before being shouted for safety by intentional grounding.

Jackson has won just 12 starts in one season only one other time in his NFL career — in 2019, when he won the MVP award. That season didn't end well, and Jackson has been waiting for another chance to propel a real contender for a while. Now he seems to have one.