Mark Madden: Don’t crown Lamar Jackson, Ravens just yet
Are the Baltimore Ravens the NFL’s best team right now?
Can they be the NFL’s best team on a frozen January day in Foxboro, Mass.?
New England is said to be “in trouble” despite a 10-1 record. At 43, quarterback Tom Brady might finally be fading, albeit in minuscule fashion. But the Patriots defense is ranked second-best in yards allowed per game and best in points conceded at 10.6 per game, over four points better than runner-up San Francisco.
You should wish the Steelers were “in trouble” like that. Brady is better than Duck, that’s certain.
New England is six-time champion and defending champ.
Baltimore (9-2) is the flavor du jour. The hype is overwhelming.
But don’t forget Kansas City (7-4). The Chiefs aren’t as good as last season, but QB Patrick Mahomes could spoil somebody’s party in the AFC playoffs.
Mahomes was last year’s MVP and sure-bet Hall of Famer. The Chiefs were last year’s “best team in football” — until they played New England in January. The Patriots didn’t even need home field to win. (They also defeated the Chiefs at Foxboro during the regular season.)
That brings us to Lamar Jackson.
The Baltimore quarterback is this year’s MVP (unless it’s Seattle’s Russell Wilson) and sure-bet Hall of Famer.
Jackson is surely electrifying. His stats are staggering: 2,427 yards passing, 24 touchdown passes vs. five interceptions, a 66.9 completion percentage, a 111.4 passer rating. (Those numbers are better than Duck’s.)
Don’t forget his legs: Jackson has rushed for 876 yards (7.1-yard average) and six touchdowns.
Some scouts, GMs and other NFL types projected Jackson as a wide receiver coming out of Louisville. Those who thought that were, at the time, subtly labeled racists, and not so subtly now.
Perhaps there was an element of race in that appraisal.
Or perhaps it was a reasonable point of view.
Jackson was the 32nd (last) pick in the first round of the 2018 NFL Draft. Jackson got passed over 31 times, including by Baltimore at pick No. 25. Four quarterbacks went prior to Jackson.
Was that all racism? Or were smart football people conflicted about his value?
Jackson may have proven them wrong. But nobody’s been proven a racist.
Jackson is a big hit now. But so were Mike Vick, Robert Griffin III, Colin Kaepernick and Tim Tebow in the short term. That style of quarterback often has a small window.
Jackson is doing wonderfully. But he shouldn’t write his induction speech for Canton just yet. Better to be concerned about the challenge of this year’s playoffs and how to tweak his game once an increased amount of video allows foes to better plan. Those listed in the prior paragraph had trouble with that.
Facing New England coach Bill Belichick for the second time in the same season isn’t easy, either. Baltimore beat New England, 37-20, on Nov. 3 in a game that won’t matter at all come January (unless it earns home field for the Ravens).
Hype makes football. But hype also breaks reputations, especially those established in the short term.
Consider the Steelers. If James Conner doesn’t fumble, the Steelers win at San Francisco (10-1) on Sept. 22. If JuJu Smith-Moncrief doesn’t fumble, the Steelers beat Baltimore on Oct. 6. We’re talking about the 8-3 miracle Steelers, tied with Baltimore atop the AFC North and owning the head-to-head tiebreaker. The 49ers would be visiting Baltimore on Sunday with even more at stake for both.
It’s a fine line, as Bill Cowher often said — as opposed to painting with a broad brush, as Mike Tomlin is known to state.
The Patriots should be considered AFC favorites until somebody beats them in a playoff game. By the way, that’s something the Steelers have never done vs. Belichick and Brady.