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Lamar Jackson and the pressure of getting his first playoff victory

Quarterbacks are judged by their postseason success, but let’s put the Ravens signal-caller’s ‘failures’ in perspective

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We know the Baltimore Ravens nailed it on Lamar Jackson. We know this because Jackson – the fifth of five quarterbacks selected in the first round of the 2018 NFL draft – is the most decorated passer of his class. Jackson has an Associated Press MVP award, has been selected as a first-team All-Pro and has led his team to three straight playoff appearances. For the Ravens, that’s called hitting it big.

Here’s what we also know, though: Jackson has struggled in the postseason. For all of his big plays in the passing game and ankle-breaking brilliance as a runner, Jackson has yet to prove he’s capable of leading Baltimore on a deep postseason run. His next opportunity to get started comes Sunday in the AFC wild-card round against the Tennessee Titans. Jackson and the Ravens face the club that eliminated them from last season’s playoffs, and the superstar passer knows what folks are saying.

“I’ve only been in the playoffs twice [previously] in my young career,” Jackson told reporters after practice on Wednesday. “Other people who’ve been in the league forever haven’t been in the playoffs at all. It is what it is, but I’m definitely trying to erase that narrative right there. That’s the No. 1 [thing] right now in my mind, for sure.”

In some respects, one could argue it’s way too early to run with the Jackson-disappoints-in-the-playoffs storyline. He is only 24. The 2019 season was the first in which he was the Ravens’ starter from Week 1 (as a rookie, he started seven games during the regular season) and none of the other quarterbacks selected before Jackson – Baker Mayfield, Sam Darnold, Josh Allen and Josh Rosen – have any playoff victories, either. On the other hand, Jackson raised the bar last season while guiding the Ravens to the No. 1 overall seed in the AFC before they were upended by the Titans on the Ravens’ home field.

Fact is, both things are true: Jackson is, by far, the most successful signal-caller of his class, and he also hasn’t delivered in the playoffs. Yet.

Not surprisingly, Ravens head coach John Harbaugh isn’t interested in piling on. Harbaugh would rather not have Baltimore’s young passer shoulder more than his share of responsibility against the Titans.

“Every game is important. You get the chance to play in the National Football League, so from an importance standpoint, they’re all important for guys who play or coach – a playoff game even more so,” Harbaugh said. “Playoff games are big. They’re opportunities, and it takes a lot to get to the playoffs. It takes a whole year’s worth of work to get back to this same spot. So that’s not lost on anybody. [It’s] no different for Lamar than anybody else in that sense.”

Well, not really.

The quarterback is the guy. In most cases, the quarterback gets too much of the credit in victories and too much of the blame in losses. Why? Because he’s the quarterback. Harbaugh knows how this works.

During playoff losses to the Los Angeles Chargers and Titans, Jackson has completed only 51.1% of his passes. His career mark in the regular season is 64%.

This season, Jackson, yet again, has been integral to Baltimore’s success. The club finished the regular season on a five-game winning streak, overcoming a rough stretch in its first 11 games (the Ravens were 6-5) to earn a wild-card berth. During the streak, Jackson had 11 touchdown passes, only three interceptions and rushed for 430 yards and four touchdowns. As the Ravens got it together to extend their season, Jackson elevated his game and is playing well at the best time, ESPN analyst and former NFL safety Ryan Clark said.

“This is a great position for him to be in,” Clark said on the phone. “You go back to his first year, he loses one game as a starter [in the regular season]. They go into the playoffs hot. People expected them to win and they lost. Last year, he’s the MVP. They were 14-2, playing at home and they were expected to beat the Titans. This year, it’s different. You’re on the road. The pressure isn’t on as much. It kind of seems like a better role for him.”

As Jackson, whose record is 30-7 during the regular season, readies for his next challenge, he won’t be rattled by an 0-2 postseason mark, Ravens tight end Mark Andrews said.

“I don’t think so at all,” said Andrews, who tied for the team lead with 58 receptions. “He’s a different type of guy. His mindset, the way he thinks, that’s not something that’s going to weigh him down or really affect the way he plays this game.

“He’s got big goals – we all do – [and] we’re all excited for this game. He’s got a lot of teammates to help him out. … Those two games and years past, they don’t matter to us right now. This is a different team, with a different mindset, and we’re ready to go.”

Lamar Jackson of the Baltimore Ravens looks to pass against the Cleveland Browns during the first half at M&T Bank Stadium on Sept. 13, 2020, in Baltimore.

Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

Let’s not forget that Jackson was the first passer in his class to reach the playoffs. Mayfield of the Cleveland Browns, the No. 1 overall pick in 2018, is scheduled to make his first postseason appearance Sunday against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Darnold, taken third overall, plays for the New York Jets. Enough on that one. Allen, the seventh pick, lost in his first playoff start last season. His second chance comes Saturday against the Indianapolis Colts. Rosen, picked 10th, is 3-13 as an NFL starter.

Considering what he accomplished so quickly and that he’s still early in his career, Jackson has no reason to fret after only two playoff games, Clark said.

“For me, and this is me saying it, he was the fifth quarterback drafted in his class, and of those quarterbacks, none of them have reached the heights he has reached individually,” he said. “None of them have been regular-season MVPs. Outside of that, none of those quarterbacks have ever won a playoff game.

“Yet, we constantly doubt and down Lamar because he has taken teams to the playoffs, but not won a playoff game. That resonates with me. Now, he understands the narrative. He knows he has to win one. But it speaks to his greatness, to his success and to the uniqueness of his play, that he’s the only quarterback from his class, the last pick of the first round, who we judge by playoff wins.”

That’s because Jackson has inspired Ravens fans to think big. And the possibilities will only increase if his next breakthrough occurs this week.

Jason Reid is the senior NFL writer at The Undefeated. He enjoys watching sports, especially any games involving his son and daughter.