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Opinion: Lamar Jackson keeps proving he's an elite-level NFL quarterback

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BALTIMORE – Remember when this was supposed to be the year that the NFL figured out Lamar Jackson?

Remember how, despite Jackson earning his first playoff win as the Baltimore Ravens’ starting quarterback last season, a statistical regression fueled questions about his growth potential, and caused some to believe a plateau was coming?

Think again.

Five weeks into the 2021 NFL season, and Jackson’s third as full-time starter, it appears that it’s actually Jackson who is figuring the NFL out. As a result, he is approaching a new level of dominance.

There he was again on Monday night, on the national stage and faced with a deficit after a slow start, trailing by double digits in the fourth quarter.

But there he was again, by game's end, standing victorious, and serenaded by chants of "M-V-P! M-V-P!" after delivering another series of jaw-dropping heroics.

And there he was again, dispelling doubts about his capabilities, and further proving himself as one of the most unique talents the league has ever seen.

The Indianapolis Colts represented the latest victim after Jackson carried the Ravens to a 31-25 overtime victory at M&T Bank Stadium.

Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson (8) runs with the ball as Indianapolis Colts defensive tackle DeForest Buckner (99) chases during the fourth quarter at M&T Bank Stadium.
Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson (8) runs with the ball as Indianapolis Colts defensive tackle DeForest Buckner (99) chases during the fourth quarter at M&T Bank Stadium.

A third-quarter lead of 22-3 and fourth-quarter advantage of 25-9 weren’t cushion enough for the visitors. And a career-high 402 passing yards for Carson Wentz didn’t rattle Jackson and the Ravens either.

That’s because Jackson produced his own career-best day, throwing for 442 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions while completing an astounding 86% of his passes and leading the victorious charge.

Until Monday night, no quarterback had ever thrown for 400-plus yards while completing 85% of his passes. But the guy that critics said would never become an elite-level passer became the first.

"It’s one of the greatest performances I’ve ever seen," Ravens coach John Harbaugh gushed. "And it wasn’t easy. It wasn’t like we came out just up and down the field. We had to overcome and fight through some things. He was under pressure, and he created plays with his feet. He threw the ball away when he had to throw it away. … We went into our fast mode, no huddle, two-minute-type mode and just came alive – all of our guys did. All the guys who made plays and the offensive line, but it starts with Lamar. He deserves the credit."

One by one, Jackson is dispelling the notions about his limitations:

• He’s not an elite level passer.

Completes a record 86% of his passes for more than 400 yards while on pace to throw for 5,164 yards for the season, which would shatter his previous best (3,127 in 2019).

• He can never play from behind.

For a second time in three weeks, he has directed double-digit, fourth-quarter comebacks – first, against Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs, and then again against a resurgent Wentz and his Colts.

"You can’t say that anymore," tight end Mark Andrews, the recipient of two touchdown passes and two two-point conversion tosses on Monday, said with a laugh. "Look at the last couple of games. He’s just calm, composed, and he’s a leader, man. That’s what we all look to. … There were a couple mistakes that were made, but he just keeps on coming, keeps on going. … There was that belief that even though we’re down 22-3 or whatever it was, we were going to still be able to get in this game and make something work."

Jackson fueled that belief because his teammates have received a front-row seat to his evolution as a passer.

They see how hard he works behind the scenes, and how desperately he wants to carry this team to greatness in any way possible.

Jackson’s trajectory continues at this astounding rate because he’s not wired to develop complacency. That’s a rare trait.

Jackson easily could have looked at his MVP trophy and felt a sense of having arrived.

In the ego-driven NFL, it’s common to see even the most gifted quarterbacks get high on their own supply. They wind up limiting their growth and their team’s potential.

But Jackson possesses a humility and hunger, and that serves him well. He does anything the Ravens ask of him, and welcomes constructive criticism from those close to him. Meanwhile, he tunes out the outside noise, and focuses on improving his game for the betterment of his team, not to prove pundits wrong.

The results are speaking for themselves.

Jackson still employs a heavy dose of designed runs. But this year, when things break down, we’re seeing him become more effective at keeping his eyes downfield for passing opportunities while scrambling to extend plays. He’s delivering the ball with accuracy and touch. Under pressure he at times displays an ability to deliver the ball with improvisation.

Jackson is attacking defenses with an even healthier confidence and more keen recognition and anticipation. And, when adversity strikes, he remains unrattled.

Monday night, after a struggle-filled first half, which saw the Ravens go 0-for-5 on third downs, Jackson and Co. attacked Indianapolis with an up-tempo plan and moved the ball with success, until Jackson fumbled at the one-yard line early in the third quarter.

The Colts promptly responded by scoring a touchdown to go up 22-3.

Jackson said he uttered a silent prayer for a shot at redemption, and then while sitting on the bench with his receivers, he told them they would answer with a touchdown of their own, get a stop from their defense and score again.

Sure enough, Jackson connected with Marquise Brown for a 43-yard touchdown, the defense held Indianapolis to a field goal, and Jackson delivered two more touchdown passes in regulation, and defensive lineman Calais Campbell blocked the Colts’ final field goal attempt as time expired.

Baltimore won the coin toss of overtime, and Jackson marched his team downfield and found Brown again for the game-winning touchdown.

"It’s just the faith we have in each other. And we knew, we’ve been in that situation before," Brown said. "Man, he’s amazing. It never surprises me. When we were down, we wanted to iron it up, (figure out) what we had to do to come back and win, and it all happened how we said it was going to happen."

With the win, Jackson joined rare company, joining Drew Bledsoe and Dan Marino as the only quarterbacks to reach 34 career victories before the age of 25.

Generally, Jackson doesn’t concern himself with records, but given that this achievement involved victories, he cherished the moment.

"I’m up there with the guys. Those (are) legends. I appreciate that," he said. "It’s an honor to be up there with those guys. I’m focused on winning. But I appreciate that accolade."

Jackson’s evolution remains far from complete, but in Year 3, he’s finally reaching that elite level as a passer. It’s a positive development for the Ravens, and the quarterback is becoming even more of a problem for the rest of the NFL.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Lamar Jackson keeps proving he's an elite-level NFL quarterback