When the sports world slows down enough to allow for focus with scant little distraction, it’s an opportunity for conversations to be elevated to the point of overreaction. Such seems to be the case with Lamar Jackson.
Sure, Jackson had an excellent outing in what was touted as this week’s version of “The Game of the Year”, a showdown between his AFC-leading Baltimore Ravens and the current NFC-best San Francisco 49ers, a good old fashioned possible Super Bowl preview with Monday Night Football billing exclusively airing on the ABC broadcast network, just like it was back in the 20th century.
But as the AP’s Josh Dubow reminded, it was a concentrated performance to an extent, and one that was not without some stellar play from others, including even a couple of Niners:
Lamar Jackson threw two touchdown passes in a span of 18 seconds in the third quarter and the Baltimore Ravens intercepted Brock Purdy four times in a 33-19 victory over the San Francisco 49ers on Monday night.
Jackson and the Ravens (12-3) turned a highly anticipated matchup between the top two teams in the NFL into a lopsided win with strong performances on both sides of the ball.
Kyle Hamilton and the defense set the tone early by intercepting Purdy on three of the first four drives of the game for the 49ers (11-4) before Jackson started to take over the game.
Jackson threw for 252 yards, ran for 45 more and vaulted past Purdy to become the MVP favorite, according to FanDuel Sportsbook. His only real mishap came when he got called for intentional grounding in the end zone after nearly tripping over the umpire, leading to a safety in the first quarter.
San Francisco’s other MVP candidate fared far better with running back Christian McCaffrey running for 102 yards and a TD and adding 28 yards receiving. He set a franchise record with his eighth straight game with at least 100 yards from scrimmage.
To me, that would indicate that there’s very much a debate. Purdy’s performance, certainly relative to the balance of the 2023 season, could be an aberration against a stellar defense.
Yet that didn’t stop the likes of USA TODAY’s Jarrett Bell from jumping on the Lamar bandwagon with this impassioned opinion piece:
Lamar Jackson is your new favorite to win the NFL’s Most Valuable Player Award. “I thought Lamar had an MVP performance tonight,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh told reporters afterward. “It takes a team to create a performance like that. But…to play at an MVP level, it takes a player to play that way. And Lamar was all over the field, doing everything.”
Sure, we’ve seen bigger numbers. But in this case, the numbers don’t begin to do justice to Jackson’s impact on the much-anticipated showdown of the teams with the best records in each conference. The raw numbers show that he passed for 252 yards with two touchdowns. Yet your eyes told you that he must have scrambled for what, 50, 75 more yards to extend the plays that got him to 252.
My eyes watched the same game and what I saw was an efficient, versatile athlete, finally healthy enough to take command, and considering how injury-riddled the balance of the Ravens’ offense has been his timing for such resurrection is optimal. It sure makes the genuises in charge of the Commanders, Panthers and Falcons look brilliant for passing on the opportunity to sign him as a free agent when opportunity beckoned earlier this year. He did what was asked of him and a little bit more.
Excellent, yes. MVP certainty? Debatable.
According to the ever-focused tandem of Bill Simmons and Cousin Sal Iacono on Bill’s eponymous podcast last night, the one-week swing in the FanDuel odds for the MVP race that anointed Jackson and lowered Purdy was the largest they’ve measured since the service began accepting bets. Which, naturally, prompted 15-20 minutes of spirited conversation about odds and prop bets and since the rest of the world is on vacation and the employed perhaps just got Christmas bonuses, they’ve arguably got both time and money in their hands to speculate about other possibilities, including the downside of betting Jackson as chalk.
Jackson and the Ravens may be in the driver’s seat, but they’ve hardly got a cakewalk of a game coming up to close out 2023. The Miami Dolphins, fresh off an emotional come-from-behind win at the expense of the Dallas Cowboys and their own MVP candidate QB who’s been proving naysayers wrong, Dak Prescott, will be heading north, having secured their first playoff appearance since 2019, once again having a healthy Tyreek Hill as a weapon and more than capable of rewriting a script that will indeed have a large audience of its own, likely NBC’s prime time Sunday night window.
Sure, the Fins will be underdogs. But if anything was established by yesterday’s other games, there is almost nothing that can be written off as a possibility. Patrick Mahomes has almost no one besides Travis Kelce he can trust as a target, and while the Chiefs look like they will still emerge as division champions, at 9-6 they look more vulnerable than they’ve been since Mahomes started in the league, and the upstart Las Vegas Raiders’ defense took full advantage of that with a shocking road upset of their own. The Giants, even with the inevitable regression of Tommy Cutlets now fully evident, somehow took the Eagles down to the wire before succumbing with a 33-25 loss that was far closer than most pundits predicted.
So before anyone starts etching the name Lamar Jackson on an MVP trophy, let’s see him do to Miami what he did to San Francisco. Yeah, I can already hear the zealots arguing how moot that will be, especially with the Ravens at home.
But this is the National Football League. Any given Sunday, even when it’s on a holiday Monday.
And if somehow Jackson regresses and falls back to the pack, think of how much more promising odds for an MVP prop bet you’ll be able to get come New Year’s morning.