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Multidimensional Baltimore Ravens again show dominance with rout of Dolphins

BALTIMORE – All day, even before the first snap of the game, the Baltimore crowd – primed for a game and possibly a late-night party – roared for Lamar Jackson. He emerged from the tunnel. "M-V-P" went the din. He threw a pass that resulted in a highlight-reel catch and it was Jackson who heard "M-V-P" chanted for him. He deserved it, of course.

Jackson operated almost exclusively from the pocket Sunday, because the Miami Dolphins rarely pressured him, apparently content to test whether the quarterback could wreck a game using only his right arm instead of his legs.

He can. He did. Decisively. He threw five touchdowns. He completed 18 of 21 passes. He had a perfect passer rating for most of the day and finished with it, too. He was a quarterback in full, terrifyingly fast when he did run, but also on target and in command of his weapons.

The Ravens' 56-19 dismantling of the Miami Dolphins is not exclusively about Jackson, although you wonder what all those teams that didn't even try to construct an offer sheet from him last offseason must be thinking now. The Ravens clinched the AFC North and the conference's top seed – and a first-round bye – because so much else about the Ravens is nearly as good as Jackson is. On a short week, after dominating a physical opponent in San Francisco on Christmas night, the Ravens flew across the country to get home and dominated a racecar of an 11-win opponent.

"I don't know if I've seen a more impressive performance in a game," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "I'm not sure I've seen a more impressive performance in a season to date. Obviously, we have a lot more to do. To step up and play the way they have and to put an exclamation point – a triple exclamation point on it – with a performance like this, pretty much a well-rounded, perfect performance like that after the opening bell."

That's saying something, considering that the Ravens were nearly perfect in San Francisco. What the destruction of the Dolphins proved is that Christmas night was no aberration, but merely the extension of a pattern. In the space of six days, Jackson has thrown seven touchdown passes against the NFC’s No. 1 seed and the team that might still be the AFC’s No. 2 seed. The Ravens are now 7-1 this season against opponents that entered the game with a winning record. And in those games, the Ravens' point differential is plus-170. They are not just beating the NFL's best teams. They are dominating them, week after week.

In a measure of how far the Ravens have come from last season, the last time they played the Dolphins – in Week 2 of 2022 – the Ravens led 35-14 at the start of the fourth quarter and lost, allowing four fourth-quarter touchdowns by the Dolphins. When Jackson was asked what he thought of the crowd chanting for him, he said he wasn't paying attention. 

"Last year, the score was looking like that at halftime, in the third quarter, and those guys started making plays," Jackson said. "The only thing that was on my mind was to finish the game and we did."

A sequence in the second quarter showed the breadth of the Ravens' dominance. Just after the Dolphins had kicked a field goal to pull to within one point late in the quarter. On the first snap of the next drive, from his own 25-yard line, Jackson launched a bomb to Zay Flowers, who was sprinting alone down the right sideline, so wide open that he put his right hand up to call for the ball. Jackson's pass reached him at about the Dolphins' 40-yard line and after a few steps – eluding a flailing attempt at a tackle by cornerback Eli Apple – Flowers had a touchdown. On the next drive, Tua Tagovailoa tried to rifle a pass to Cedric Wilson into a tight window in the middle of the field. Ravens linebacker Roquan Smith has seen that play before, earlier in the game, on a pass that was targeted to Tyreek Hill. Smith didn't get there fast enough then, but he recognized the pass to Wilson and took off.

"I knew it had to be an in-breaking route, so I said, 'I'm going to just run,'" Smith said. "I couldn't believe it. I saw it and I was like, 'Crap, let me stick this arm out.'"

Smith reeled in the football with just his right hand, one of the two interceptions of Tagovailoa. The drive stalled, though, and the Ravens faced fourth-and-7 from Miami's 35-yard line. The Ravens' Justin Tucker is the best kicker in football history and was already on the field. But Harbaugh thought the wind was bad enough that the Ravens had just as good a chance of getting the first down. Jackson backpedaled nearly to midfield and found Isaiah Likely streaking across the field. Likely, at about the 25-yard line, stuck his left hand out – he practices it, he said, and when he saw Smith make his play, Likely knew he had to do it, too, and score -- never broke stride and raced the rest of the way for a touchdown.

A one-point lead had ballooned to 15 points in less than two minutes, and it would get much worse when Justice Hill returned the second-half kickoff 78 yards. Three plays later, Likely caught another touchdown pass – followed by more "M-V-P" chanting -- and even the residual agony from last year's Dolphins comeback couldn't dent how multidimensional the Ravens are now. One of the most startling statistics from the game was in offensive production. The Ravens had 491 yards. Their average pass was for 14.4 yards. The Dolphins, who are known for their speed and explosion, were without Raheem Mostert and Jaylen Waddle, and the Ravens forced them to take the long way down the field. They ran 66 plays, 11 more than the Ravens, but their passes averaged just 5.4 yards per throw. 

"We kept saying if we can start hitting the deep ball, that's going to be a backbreaker," Harbaugh said. "Turned out to be a back breaker today."

It is all a far cry from last season, when Ravens receivers were plagued by drops and the team limped into the playoffs, and were quickly dispatched, without an injured Jackson on the field. Jackson remembers that, of course, and he said he is grateful to be with his team now. He looked more than grateful, though. He looked like he was in a zone, where he simply could not miss. Todd Monken's offense has suited him, and Jackson now has the power to make decisions. A 33-yard pass to Odell Beckham Jr. on the right sideline, which dropped over Beckham's left shoulder and which Beckham caught as he was falling, while dragging his feet, was a check.

"That's the type of game I like," Jackson said about Monken's aggressive play-calling. "He was letting me be the decision-maker. I can be aggressive, but just take what the defense gives us."

From the first time Jackson FaceTimed with Beckham, the receiver said, Jackson has talked over and over about winning a Super Bowl.

A neat bit of NFL symmetry may be at work on the Ravens' path to the championship. The Ravens last won the Super Bowl in 2012, which was also the last time they won multiple playoff games in a season, when Joe Flacco was their quarterback. Flacco, enjoying a career renaissance with the Cleveland Browns, could soon be back in Baltimore as the visitor. The Browns are locked into the AFC’s top wild-card spot. If the Browns win and the other seedings hold up on Super Wild Card Weekend, Flacco will try to end his former team's season in the Divisional Round.

But first, Harbaugh and Jackson are going to have a talk. Harbaugh said he has already thought about how he will handle the regular-season finale against Pittsburgh, which now has no impact on the Ravens' playoff seeding. The Ravens need the break to get banged-up players, especially on defense, healthy again, but Harbaugh must weigh if resting Jackson risks breaking the momentum of the offense right now.

It is a tricky balancing act and one that Harbaugh said he would likely discuss with other coaches, including Bill Belichick. The last time the Ravens were the AFC's top seed, was 2019. Jackson won the MVP that year and the Ravens looked unstoppable then, too. They lost their first playoff game, to the Tennessee Titans.

"We remember 2019," Harbaugh said. "You're not going to take it for granted. Not that we ever would, but it's one more thing that makes you who you are at this point in time. We haven't forgotten that."

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