Ravens wide receiver Nelson Agholor brought a little something extra for his arrival at M&T Bank Stadium on Saturday. Contrasted against his head-to-toe denim motif was the sparkle of football’s greatest achievement: a Super Bowl ring.
The 30-year-old won it as a member of the Philadelphia Eagles in 2018, but it was the first time he’d worn it on his hand this season, and the timing was not unintentional.
“It was a message to myself: Remember what you’re doing it for,” he told The Baltimore Sun in the afterglow of Baltimore’s 34-10 divisional rout of the Houston Texans.
Agholor was packing his bag in the locker room and getting ready to head to Florida on Sunday morning to coach a youth basketball game before returning for another week of practice ahead of next week’s AFC championship, the first at home in Ravens history and first in Baltimore since the Colts played the then-Oakland Raiders in 1971. And while the shine of the championship ring was a reminder of where the Ravens are trying to go, it was another message, delivered about 2 1/2 hours earlier during halftime by quarterback Lamar Jackson, that resonated loudest.
Jackson, while more vocal this season in his command of the offense and the team, is, as running back Justice Hill said, usually a “calm, mellow guy.” But with the Ravens struggling to move the ball, the offense flustered by Houston’s myriad blitzes, and locked in a 10-10 tie with the underdog Texans after Steven Sims’ 67-yard punt return for a touchdown late in the second quarter, now wasn’t the time for that.
“I think everybody was kind of a little edgy,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “We were all a little edgy.”
Nobody more than Jackson, who was acutely aware of all the criticism surrounding the 1-3 playoff record he held before Saturday and the Ravens’ failures to advance past the divisional round in his six years at quarterback. That included in 2019 when Baltimore went 14-2 in the regular season, was the top seed in the AFC playoffs and flopped at home in a stunning divisional round loss to the Tennessee Titans.
But that was then. This was a different Jackson and he launched into a profanity-laced speech, compelling the offense to do its job.
“A lot of cursing at halftime,” said Jackson, adding that he did most of the talking at the break. “It would be inappropriate if I said [what I said]. We wasn’t really doing anything to that defense. … we wasn’t doing our job with our unit.”
For all of his leadership qualities that have emerged this season — one that will likely include him being named the NFL’s Most Valuable Player for the second time in his career — this wasn’t a side of the 27-year-old teammates had seen before.
“There’s something in him right now,” said Agholor, who scored the Ravens’ first touchdown on a nifty 3-yard catch on which he’d slipped across the defense underneath the traffic-clogging route of tight end Charlie Kolar. “It’s been in him all year, but there’s something really in him right now and I’m with it. I’m with it.
“We are as he goes. His personality, he is the Baltimore Ravens. He leads the right way, by example. But also when it’s time to talk, it’s said. And then he executes, he does. He doesn’t just talk, talk, talk and go out there and not do nothing. He says what needs to be said and then goes out there and executes.”
Which is exactly what he did on a chilly evening in front of a raucous crowd against a Texans team that was riding its strong-armed rookie quarterback, C.J. Stroud, and coming off the high of having annihilated the Cleveland Browns in the wild-card round the week before.
After a 37-yard kick return by Devin Duvernay to open the second half, Jackson capped a six-play, 55-yard scoring drive with a 15-yard touchdown scamper up the middle. Then, on the Ravens’ next possession, he converted a fourth-and-1 from the Texans’ 49-yard line with a brilliant naked bootleg around the left side.
Six plays later, and while on the run, Jackson threw a dart to the back shoulder of leaping tight end Isaiah Likely for a 15-yard scoring strike early in the fourth quarter.
The touchdown gave the Ravens a 24-10 lead and their fans room to exhale. The 12-play, 93-yard drive also chewed up 7:03 of clock and demoralized a Texans team that had, for at least the first 30 minutes, given Baltimore fits.
Then Jackson put the game out of reach, faking a handoff to Hill and running around the left side for an 8-yard score midway through the fourth quarter. After he crossed the goal line, he kept going, too, all the way into the Texans’ tunnel, where he celebrated with left tackle Ronnie Stanley, who’d helped clear a path to the end zone on the designed run.
The 11-play, 78-yard drive again ate up valuable minutes, with 7:10 ticking off the clock.
It also allowed the Ravens’ defense to continue to zero in on Stroud. Much like they did in their Week 1 win over the Texans, Baltimore often made him look like the first-year player he is, especially when it mattered most.
Baltimore held Stroud, the No. 2 overall draft pick in April, to just 68 yards passing in the second half. A week after putting up a passer rating of 157.2 against a stout Browns defense, he finished 19 of 33 for just 175 yards with zero touchdowns against the Ravens.
The Texans also struggled with crowd noise for much of the game, committing 11 penalties, including six false starts.
But the biggest noise of the night came from Jackson.
On the field, he completed 16 of 22 passes for 152 yards and two touchdowns and ran for 100 yards and two more scores on 11 carries. In the locker room, he willed his team to its first postseason victory since 2020.
“I’ve seen him animated a lot on the field, halftime in the locker room, but that’s just credit to his competitiveness and his just want to win,” Stanley said. “I hear the message, not just the words, so I know what he’s trying to say. He’s a very competitive player, wears his heart on his sleeve and he’ll say a lot of stuff, but I know what he’s trying to get at and we all know what he wants and that’s just a win.”
Now the Ravens are just one win away from reaching the Super Bowl, which would be the first of Jackson’s career and first for the franchise since they won it in 2013.
“We’re not in the dance yet, but I’m looking forward to next week,” Jackson said. “I’m not even thinking about the Super Bowl until we handle business.”
AFC championship game
Bills/Chiefs at Ravens
Sunday, 3 p.m.
Radio: 97.9 FM, 101.5 FM, 1090 AM