Sunday, April 21, 2024

NFL The Final Word: Lamar Jackson perfect but Eagles continue to slump as playoff race heats up -Dlight News

Lamar Jackson celebrates as the Baltimore Ravens beat the Miami Dolphins in Week 17

Lamar Jackson celebrates as the Baltimore Ravens beat the Miami Dolphins in Week 17

Happy New Year everyone! Based on what I saw on Sunday, 2024 could be a very good year for the Baltimore Ravens – and that’s where I want to start this week’s column…

1) Jackson playing perfect football

It has been an impressive couple of weeks for the Ravens, especially their quarterback Lamar Jackson, who is now the favourite to be named the NFL’s MVP. He led Baltimore to a 56-19 thrashing of their closest challengers in the AFC, the Miami Dolphins – and that’s one week after a 33-19 road win over the No 1 team in the NFC, the San Francisco 49ers.

Lamar has now beaten 10 teams with winning records in this campaign. You have to wonder if anyone can stop him and the Ravens this season.

What was notable against Miami was he only had to run six times on the night. This was a passing performance – and it was outstanding from start to finish. Jackson produced a perfect passer rating of 158.3, hitting on 18 of 21 pass attempts, for 321 yards, five touchdowns and no picks. But you don’t even need the numbers… you just watch him play and you know he’s perfect. It doesn’t get any better than that at the quarterback position.

2) Ravens top of the pile heading into playoffs

We’ve talked about Jackson, he’s the headline act, but the Ravens are complete team. The wins over San Francisco and Miami have been total team performances.

Against the Dolphins, five different players caught touchdown passes, while the defense recorded three sacks and two interceptions to make it seven sacks and as many picks over the past fortnight. That’s a bruising way to send a message to the rest of the NFL.

And even though Lamar didn’t do much on the ground against Miami, they still rushed for 160 yards and two scores as a team. This is a tough team, playing a physical brand of football, the type that has produced Super Bowl champions in the past. The Ravens are the team to beat as we head into Week 18 and beyond.

3) Flacco fires again for surging Browns

Joe Flacco is writing one of the stories of this and any recent NFL season. A 37-20 win over the New York Jets for the Cleveland Browns confirmed their place in the playoffs.

Cleveland Browns quarterback Joe Flacco has thrown over 300 yards in four-straight starts

Cleveland Browns quarterback Joe Flacco has thrown over 300 yards in four-straight starts

Flacco has now thrown for more than 300 yards in all of his last four games and the Browns are 4-1 since they signed the 38-year-old quarterback. There is no doubt that the former Super Bowl MVP with the Ravens over a decade ago has saved Cleveland’s season. He is a significant upgrade on Dorian Thompson-Robinson and PJ Walker.

The Browns are competitive and likeable. Their fans must be so excited by what has happened.

4) Chiefs defense bails out Mahomes & co to clinch division

The Kansas City Chiefs clinched an eight-straight AFC West title with their win over the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday. But this one is very different to so many of the others, which have been driven by Patrick Mahomes.

This was about Kansas City’s defense, which is now considered one of the best in the league. They dialled up consistent and confusing pressure that proved too much for Cincinnati QB Jake Browning, who was sacked six times as the Bengals were held to just 263 yards of offense.

Cincinnati did scare the Chiefs – they took a 17-7 lead on Browning’s touchdown run with around six and a half minutes left in the first half – but they never scored again after half time and that allowed Kansas City to clinch the West, despite their last six scores all being Harrison Butker field goals. This offense is stuck in the mud; their defense is keeping them afloat.

5) Eagles demise continues to dumbfound

The demise of the Philadelphia Eagles has been one of the most stunning developments of the last five weeks of this NFL season. They have lost four of their last five games – their latest a 35-31 defeat to the Arizona Cardinals.

Quarterback Jalen Hurts has questioned the commitment of the team, wide receiver AJ Brown is having a sulk and hasn’t spoken to the media for two weeks, but the defense is the real issue – they couldn’t get off the field on Sunday, giving up those 35 points to the Cardinals, as well as 449 yards!

This team’s pass rush last year was one of the best in NFL history. But that has completely dried up this year and what was a talent-laden team is now probably going to be a wildcard outfit at best in the playoffs – and few would back them to make much noise based on their current form.

Player of the Week – Lamar Jackson, QB, Baltimore Ravens

I gave you the numbers behind Lamar’s exemplary performance earlier but, as I say, you just need to watch this guy play to see how he shines on the biggest of stages. He was the best player in the NFL this week, and has been the whole season.

Lamar Jackson strengthened his MVP case with another dominant display against the Miami Dolphins

Lamar Jackson strengthened his MVP case with another dominant display against the Miami Dolphins

He has developed as a passer and matured as a runner. He is a far greater player now because of his growth in those areas. He protects his body a lot more these days.

A big month is coming up for the Ravens QB. He is 1-3 in the playoffs, and that is how his career will ultimately be judged. He has never previously made it past the divisional round but this team is a leading Super Bowl contender. He has to deliver in the postseason – his legacy depends on it.

Play of the Week – Fields’ TD toss to Moore

There were some great plays this week, including some incredible catches downfield. But I’m going with a seven-yard touchdown which I thought was outstanding – Justin Fields to DJ Moore in the back corner of the end zone, with literally centimetres to spare.

It was an absolute strike from Chicago’s quarterback, who later added a touchdown run in a win that has made it seven victories for the season – and they still hold the No 1 pick in the 2024 Draft by virtue of their trade last year with the Carolina Panthers.

You have to wonder if they’ll now use one of the young QBs coming out of college or if they will continue to build around Fields, who is catching the eye as we head down the stretch of this season. He is certainly striking up a good partnership with Moore.

Coach of the Week – Jonathan Gannon, Arizona Cardinals

Jonathan Gannon took a team in the Cardinals, who really have nothing to play for the rest of the way, into his old place of work in Philadelphia – where he was previously the defensive coordinator – and took down the Eagles.

Jonathan Gannon is in his first season as Arizona Cardinals head coach

Jonathan Gannon is in his first season as Arizona Cardinals head coach

It was a reminder that Gannon hasn’t given up on this season, even though losses would result in better draft picks for this team.

He put together a great offensive game-plan to take advantage of Philadelphia’s ailing defense, got the best out of QB Kyler Murray and has definitely provided a more positive feeling around the Cardinals as they head towards the offseason.

On my radar… The Dolphins against winning teams

We’ve spoken all season long about Miami’s inability to beat teams with winning records. They’re not able to knock off quality teams – other than that one time on Christmas Eve against the Dallas Cowboys. Every other game they’ve had against a team with a winning record, they’ve lost, making them 1-4 for the season in those games. And now here come the Buffalo Bills in Week 18…

This game will decide the winner of the AFC East and who gets the No 2 seed in the conference. It’s a huge game and Miami simply must answer the bell – and do so with a banged-up quarterback in Tua Tagovailoa and without pass rushed Bradley Chubb, who tore his ACL against the Ravens. We also need to see if Jaylen Waddle is back from his high ankle sprain.

Injuries have started to bite for the Dolphins. And, ultimately, I think Buffalo wins this game… The Dolphins are right about where they were last year – a good and exciting team, but one that is not quite ready to challenge the big boys.

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