NFL Winners and Losers: With Lamar Jackson heating up, perhaps the Ravens can still be a contender

Frank Schwab

Lamar Jackson’s biggest problem this season has been what he did last season.

Jackson had a phenomenal 2019 season. He was unanimous MVP and deserved it. He set a single-season rushing record for a quarterback and led the NFL in touchdown passes. We might never see that combination happen again.

There was also little chance Jackson could replicate that season. The same goes for the Baltimore Ravens, who went 14-2. Everything went right last regular season. Jackson threw touchdowns at an unsustainable rate. Defenses were going to make adjustments. Once Jackson didn’t reach his historic levels of a season ago, the focus would be on him not reaching those marks, not any positives he brought to the Ravens.

Jackson hasn’t been nearly as bad as you might think. He has struggled at times. He won’t be coming close to his MVP form of a year ago. He has also been better than he has been given credit for, and the past few weeks have shown the Ravens are still capable of some special things.

The Ravens blasted the Jacksonville Jaguars on Sunday. Jackson passed for 243 yards and three touchdowns and he rushed for 35 yards and a touchdown in a 40-14 win. That doesn’t mean too much considering the Jaguars are 1-13, but it’s the continuation of Baltimore quietly starting to look like a contender again.

Two weeks ago, the Ravens ran for almost 300 yards against the Cowboys. Last week they scored 47 points in a win over the Browns. Jackson came out of the locker room after cramping up (or is that what really happened?) and made big plays to carry Baltimore to a win. It’s hard to get excited about anything that happens against the Jaguars, but the Ravens had 224 yards and 26 points in the first half against them. Jackson had 145 yards passing and two touchdowns at the half.

Jackson looked good. He was patient as a passer at times, keeping his eyes downfield and looking for big plays. Jackson’s strength will always be as a runner because he’s probably the best running quarterback we’ve seen. He’s at his best when he meshes that ability with big plays in the passing game. It’s what we saw all last season. It’s what we have seen the past few weeks.

If the Ravens put their playoff disappointments of the past couple years behind them and make a run, they’ll have to do it the hard way. They can’t win the AFC North but the three-game winning streak has pretty much made them a wild-card lock.

Just making the playoffs won’t be enough. Questions about Jackson will persist if the Ravens go one-and-done again. But Baltimore is finally looking like a team that can fulfill some of its preseason expectations. The key to that is Jackson, who might never reach his ridiculous 2019 levels again, but is a player no AFC playoff team will want to see in the postseason.

Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson (8) is congratulated by guard Ben Powers (72) after scoring a touchdown on a run against the Jacksonville Jaguars during the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Dec. 20, 2020, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Gail Burton)
Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson (8) is congratulated by guard Ben Powers after scoring a touchdown on a run against the Jacksonville Jaguars during the second half. (AP Photo/Gail Burton)

Here are the rest of the winners and losers from Week 15:

WINNERS

Green Bay Packers: The Packers got to sit back Sunday and watch the path to the No. 1 seed in the NFC get even wider for them.

The Saints’ loss to the Chiefs was good news for the Packers. Though Seattle is also a game behind Green Bay for the NFC’s best record, the Saints seemed like the biggest threat. New Orleans’ loss makes it much harder for the Saints to get the top seed.

If the Packers get the top seed, they’ll be two games in cold Lambeau Field from making a Super Bowl. They have to feel pretty thankful for Kansas City at the end of Week 15.

Jalen Hurts: The Eagles might have lost, but Hurts was great.

Hurts is quickly showing he belongs as a starter in the NFL. He was fantastic on Sunday, coming up with several big plays. Hurts finished with 338 passing yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions, and also 63 yards and a touchdown. It was a fantastic performance. It wasn’t his fault the Eagles defense couldn’t stop Kyler Murray. Hurts drove the Eagles into Cardinals territory at the end but his final two Hail Mary attempts were incomplete and the Cardinals won 33-26.

Whatever the Eagles will do over the offseason will be sorted out later. For now Philadelphia should feel pretty good about their rookie quarterback. Even though the Eagles didn’t win, Hurts was a highlight and might have a bright future as a starter.

David Montgomery: He has changed what we should think of him as a player.

The Chicago Bears have looked much better on offense the past few weeks, and while the attention will go to Mitchell Trubisky, the play of Montgomery has been a huge factor.

Montgomery had 146 yards rushing and two touchdowns as the Bears continued their mini-revival late in the season, beating the Minnesota Vikings 33-27.

Montgomery hadn’t shown much through the first half of this season. He looked like an average back, at best. Montgomery had his fourth straight game with at least 100 yards from scrimmage and his third 100-yard rushing game in that span as the Bears beat the Vikings.

Montgomery has never shown this type of sustained success in the NFL before this stretch. If he keeps this going for a couple more weeks, he will have little doubt about where he fits in with the Bears’ offense.

Ryan Tannehill: The Titans got closer to clinching a playoff berth, and Tannehill showed why Tennessee could again be a dangerous opponent in the postseason. Tannehill had five touchdowns, three passing and two rushing, as the Titans blew out the Detroit Lions 46-25.

Tannehill threw it well and showed off his former college receiver athleticism on a nice touchdown run.

We all know Derrick Henry is great and will be a huge part of any postseason success Tennessee has. But to go on a run like last season, the Titans need more than Henry. Tannehill looked on Sunday like he’s peaking at the right time. That might make Tennessee a problem for the rest of the AFC in January.

Deshaun Watson: Watson’s 2020 season will go down as one of the best ever for a team with a losing record.

Watson has almost nothing to work with, and most weeks, he has played at a high level. Sunday, against a tough Colts defense, Watson kept his team in the game. With less than 30 seconds left and Houston trailing 27-20, Watson hit Keke Coutee inside the 5. The Colts forced a fumble and recovered in the end zone to seal the win. The Texans are 5-9 and if you blame that on Watson, you haven’t watched Houston enough.

Watson threw for 373 yards and two touchdowns despite a skeleton crew around him, and still lost. The Texans’ new general manager will have a great start with Watson and a great challenge to make sure Houston isn’t going to waste more seasons of its spectacular quarterback.

Tony Pollard: For most of the season, Pollard has looked better than Ezekiel Elliott. He looks more explosive. Elliott is the bigger star with the bigger contract so Pollard’s chances were limited.

When Elliott was inactive due to a calf injury, Pollard showed what he can do. Pollard had 69 rushing yards, 63 yards receiving and a pair of touchdowns, including a 40-yard touchdown run to practically put a 41-33 win over the San Francisco 49ers away.

Pollard will go back to backup duty when Elliott can return. Whether he deserves that backup role might be up for debate.

LOSERS

Los Angeles Rams: There won’t be a bigger loss in the NFL this season. There aren’t many bigger losses in NFL history.

The attention will be on what the New York Jets’ 23-20 win means for the first pick of the draft, and also about the Jets avoiding 0-16. It’s also an embarrassing result for the Rams.

The good news is that the Rams should still be safe in the wild-card race and if they beat the Seattle Seahawks next week, they’ll be in line to win an NFC West championship due to the tiebreaker. But the Rams can’t feel good losing to an 0-13 team. They were behind the whole game.

Los Angeles needs to regroup quickly. If they win their final two games they will be NFC West champs and the loss to the Jets probably won’t matter much. But that doesn’t mean nobody will remember it.

Dwayne Haskins Jr.: Not all first-round draft picks at quarterback get endless opportunities. Look at Paxton Lynch or Josh Rosen.

Someone like Haskins needs to put something good on film to work back into being the type of player a team would trust to compete for a starting spot. A calf injury to Alex Smith gave Haskins a chance to start against a Seattle Seahawks defense that has played better but is still not one of the NFL’s toughest tests.

Haskins rallied his team late and had a chance to win, but his two interceptions and ineffectiveness through three quarters were too much to overcome in a 20-15 loss to Seattle. The Seahawks clinched a playoff berth with the win.

Haskins wasn’t bad in the fourth quarter, but with a chance to put together a winning drive and upsetting the Seahawks, Haskins took two sacks and threw incomplete on fourth down.

Haskins finished strong, and that’s a positive. But it’s hard to ignore his early mistakes, and Haskins might need to be special before he gets a second shot to be a regular starter.

Atlanta Falcons blowing another lead to Tom Brady: Atlanta led the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 17-0 and 24-7. But these are the Falcons. Blowing leads is what they do best. It’s a legacy they’ll be stuck with due to their Super Bowl collapse to Tom Brady and the Patriots.

The Falcons fell apart again against Brady on Sunday. The Buccaneers came all the way back, with Brady heating up after a bad first half. Antonio Brown’s first Buccaneers touchdown gave the Bucs a 31-27 lead. The Falcons couldn’t score after that, and the Bucs escaped with a win.

It’s inexplicable how the Falcons keep doing this. They’ve had multiple blown leads this season, and that’s one reason head coach Dan Quinn was fired. The Falcons’ collapse wasn’t even their worst one. They’ll be happy when the season is over and they can stop blowing second-half leads.

New England Patriots: Not that it hasn’t been expected for weeks, but the Patriots will not be going to the playoffs.

It will be strange. The Patriots had made the playoffs 11 straight seasons, a streak that will be more impressive as time goes on. They were officially eliminated Sunday with a 22-12 loss to the Miami Dolphins.

The Patriots still play hard and are well-coached, but there’s not enough offensive talent and Cam Newton has looked bad most of the season. It was more of the same Sunday. Bill Belichick was good again against a rookie quarterback, making Tua Tagovailoa work for everything the Dolphins got. But the Patriots couldn’t score enough to make it matter. The Patriots never scored a touchdown, settling for four field goals.

The Patriots will be at home this January. If the Patriots don’t have a good offseason, a new streak could be beginning.

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