FOX Sports Insider
Lamar Jackson said last week that he likes it when he’s the underdog. It wasn’t breaking news.
He’s said it before, sometimes in reference to proving people wrong after being drafted as the fifth QB in 2018 despite being a Heisman Trophy winner. He often said it ahead of games the Baltimore Ravens aren’t necessarily expected to win, like Sunday’s clash with the divisional-rival Cincinnati Bengals.
He may not get to say it much longer.
Despite a small sample, the Ravens look about as convincing as anyone in this early part of the campaign, brushing off the Bengals on Sunday in a 27-24 road win that was more comprehensive than the score makes it look.
AFC North favorites? Maybe not far away from it.
After years of nearly having all the pieces in place, John Harbaugh’s team looks to have discovered the kind of balance that was lacking just enough to produce only two postseason victories — despite five 10-plus win seasons — since the Ravens won the Super Bowl a decade ago.
The last few years have been part-enjoyable, part-frustrating for Ravens fans. Jackson’s talents are undeniably special and the lost opportunity of the 2019 campaign where he won the league MVP, the team went 14-2, but then lost to the Tennessee Titans in the divisional round still stings.
That year aside, there was always the sense that they weren’t making the most of Jackson’s ability, even with the focus on a run-first game that would make the most of his athleticism. This season marks a significant change, but not a complete overhaul by any means.
Offensive coordinator Todd Monken came in from Georgia and set about sparking a tweaked approach. Receiving acquisitions Odell Beckham Jr., Nelson Agholor and draftee Zay Flowers signaled an intent to throw it more, yet despite star runner J.K. Dobbins going down for the season the tactical blueprint against the Bengals called for even-handedness.
Against Cincinnati, the Ravens ran the ball 37 times and passed it 33, with Jackson looking assured and able to fire the ball into whatever spot he liked, a process surely assisted by an outstandingly offensive-line performance.
Jackson was part of the summer collection of quarterback contract signees leveling up for more than $50 million annually, his deal coming in at $260 million over five years. If he finds Monken’s new way to his liking, and it appears that he does, the Ravens start to look seriously dangerous.
Skip doubles down: Lamar Jackson and the Ravens will win Super Bowl LVIII
“I thought Lamar played great football,” Harbaugh told reporters. “Lamar played winning football. He got in rhythm early, hit some passes, made some huge plays throwing the ball down the field. He does it. He wants to win. That’s what he’s all about. I’m just so impressed with his competitiveness and how he played.”
Jackson threw efficiently for 237 yards and two touchdowns and added another 54 with his feet, and while the reality holds that it’s a long season with plenty of twists looming, the Ravens are well-founded in having a genuine feel of optimism.
With so much talk about the Bengals as one of the forces to be reckoned with in the AFC and no love lost between the teams, you’d better believe Baltimore enjoyed being the ones to stick Cincinnati in a minor hole at 0-2.
No one expects Joe Burrow and company to continue floundering this badly, but the mini-gap opened up at the top of the AFC North could be significant and the Ravens will like their chances of contending strongly for the division’s top seed.
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“Like I’ve been saying since camp, the sky’s the limit for this team,” Jackson said. “We fought how we were supposed to. We just did what we were supposed to do.”
Next week brings to town the Indianapolis Colts, for whom standout rookie QB Anthony Richardson suffered a concussion this weekend. Following that, AFC North action heats up further, with the Cleveland Browns and Pittsburgh Steelers on the docket in consecutive weeks.
The Ravens have stability and if enough offensive explosiveness can be injected to enable them to get the most out their assets, their threat — both in the division and the AFC — should not be discounted.
The signs on that front are positive and though a lot can happen over the remaining months, they don’t feel much like an underdog right now.
Martin Rogers is a columnist for FOX Sports and the author of the FOX Sports Insider newsletter. Follow him on Twitter at @MRogersFOX and subscribe to the daily newsletter.
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