Joe Burrow, Lamar Jackson look to make statement in AFC North

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  • Ben Baby

    CloseESPN Staff Writer

    • ESPN Staff Writer
    • Previously a college football writer for The Dallas Morning News
    • University of North Texas graduate
  • Jamison Hensley

    CloseESPN Staff Writer

    • University of Maryland graduate
    • Lives in the Baltimore area with his wife and son

Over the past couple of years, games between the Cincinnati Bengals and Baltimore Ravens have featured signature moments for two of the game’s top young quarterbacks.

In 2019, Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson picked up the highlight of his MVP season with a 47-yard touchdown run that featured a spin move straight out of a video game. Two years later, Cincinnati’s Joe Burrow torched a depleted Baltimore defense and set a franchise record with 525 passing yards in a Bengals rout. Burrow’s 941 yards in sweeping Baltimore last season were the most passing yards vs. a single team in a season in NFL history.

In what is expected to be a tight AFC North this season, Sunday’s game between the Ravens and Bengals (8:20 p.m. ET, NBC), who are both 2-2, could play a fairly large role in who wins the division.

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And the winner likely will be determined by the quarterback position. Burrow is coming off a Super Bowl run, and Jackson is playing above his 2019 MVP level. With contract decisions for both quarterbacks looming, what happens Sunday and the rest of the season could shape the future of the AFC North.

“The quarterback’s a major component in how our team goes,” Bengals coach Zac Taylor said ahead of Sunday’s prime-time game. “For him to play his best in the big moments, as he has, is critical.”

Burrow will be eligible for a contract extension next offseason. Off to a slower start than Jackson thus far, he is 16th in the league in Total QBR (49.4) and 17th in completion percentage (64.1). He’s seventh in the league in passing yards (1,099) and tied for sixth in touchdown passes (eight). He has also been sacked 16 times, which is third most in the NFL.

Jackson halted contract negotiations with the Ravens once the regular season began and is playing on his fifth-year option. In essence, he’s betting on himself, and the early returns have suggested it was a wise move. Jackson is tied for fifth in QBR, tied for first with 11 TD passes and the only QB among the top 25 in rushing, as his 316 yards put him ninth in the league.

With the Pittsburgh Steelers at the beginning of the Kenny Pickett era and the Cleveland Browns yet to see what Deshaun Watson brings to their offense — he’s currently serving an 11-game suspension for violating the league’s personal conduct policy following allegations of inappropriate conduct and sexual assault in massage sessions, Jackson and Burrow are the most established quarterbacks in the division. How the AFC North ultimately shakes out could very well come down to how these two play, and that narrative takes shape Sunday night.

Coming off a trip to the Super Bowl in 2021, Burrow entered Week 5 seventh in the league in passing yards (1,099) and tied for sixth in passing touchdowns (eight). Patrick Smith/Getty Images

BURROW’S FIRST GAME against Baltimore was memorable for all the wrong reasons.

As a rookie in 2020, the No. 1 overall draft pick and former Heisman Trophy winner had the toughest game of his career. He posted a career-low 4.2 Total QBR, which scores games on a 1 to 100 scale, in a 27-3 shellacking in Week 5.

Six weeks later, Burrow suffered a season-ending knee injury. After an aggressive rehabilitation period, he turned the situation into a footnote, as he rebounded in ’21 as one of the NFL’s most effective quarterbacks, leading the league in completion percentage over expectation, according to NFL Next Gen Stats.

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The Bengals’ hopes when they drafted Burrow were quickly realized in February, when the team made its first Super Bowl appearance since 1989 before losing 23-20 to the Los Angeles Rams.

Some of the success could be chalked up to the struggles he had as a rookie.

“It was a chance [for] him to have a season to look back and learn those different styles that you’ll see and those environments you’ll be in and play styles from defenses,” Taylor said. “To come back and have a great year, obviously he’s looking to build off of that this year.”

Bengals running back Joe Mixon said the meetings against Baltimore have displayed Burrow’s ability to extend plays and make big throws. But Burrow’s poise also has been on display in crucial moments.

“He’s gonna be that guy,” Mixon said. “He’s going to have a killer mentality. If you look at him or if you see him in the huddle or see him on the big screen he just looks like he’s about to deliver.”

In both games against Baltimore last year, Burrow starred. He engineered Cincinnati’s comeback in Week 7, throwing for 416 yards and three touchdowns. Two months later, Burrow threw for 525 yards in another victory over the Ravens. His 91.4 Total QBR from that game remains a career high.

At the beginning of the season, Burrow said he doesn’t care about the numbers as long as the team wins. Through four games, the third-year quarterback’s performances have varied between a four-turnover outing in a Week 1 loss to Pittsburgh to a steady showing in last week’s win over the Miami Dolphins.

But there’s a version of himself that he enjoys the most.

“The one that throws for 530 yards,” Burrow said.

Heading into Week 5, Jackson was tied for fifth in QBR, tied for first with 11 TD passes and the only QB among the top 25 in rushing yards. Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

AS MUCH AS Burrow has helped transform Cincinnati, no one has changed the trajectory of the Ravens over the past decade more than Jackson.

Baltimore was stuck in mediocrity after winning the Super Bowl in 2012. The Ravens were 44-45 (.494) from 2013 until Jackson took over as starting quarterback midway through the 2018 season.

Once Jackson replaced Joe Flacco as the starter, Baltimore has been one of the best teams in the NFL and had one of its most electrifying offenses. Jackson’s record as a starting quarterback (39-14) ranks behind only Patrick Mahomes (53-14) among active quarterbacks since 2018.

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“He’s the one that drives our team,” Ravens tight end Mark Andrews said.

Jackson has been even more of a one-man attack in 2022 than he was during his MVP season.

Jackson has accounted for 84% of the total yards for the league’s third-highest-scoring offense despite injuries on the offensive line and a plodding rushing attack. Baltimore has started three different left tackles in the first four weeks, and the Ravens’ running backs have 251 rushing yards, which ranks 30th in the league.

Jackson’s big plays have carried a team that has the NFL’s 30th-ranked defense. His 13 total touchdowns are more than 28 other offenses this season. Jackson has produced the longest run (79 yards) and the second-longest pass (75) this season.

“He is dynamic,” Jets coach Robert Saleh said. “He’s very deserving of everything he asks for, if you ask me. But his arm, his legs, his mind, his toughness, his tenacity — you’ve got to worry about it all.”

Even though Jackson is averaging a career-high 8.54 yards per carry, he has made significant strides throwing the ball, which has changed the identity of Baltimore’s offense. The Ravens once had the league’s most run-heavy attack, but Jackson has dropped back to pass 60% of the time.

Jackson is showing more patience, moving around to buy time instead of scrambling downfield. He has also become more confident throwing into tighter windows and more effective at reading defenses.

“The hard thing with him is … he got better,” Patriots safety Devin McCourty said.



Stephen A. Smith calls out the Ravens’ defense after its tough start to the season.

LEAGUE SOURCES TOLD ESPN’s Adam Schefter in September that Jackson declined an offer worth about $250 million. Sources told Schefter that Jackson’s wish was for a fully guaranteed deal, similar to the record-setting $230 million, fully guaranteed contract the Browns gave Watson.

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The sides agreed to suspend contract negotiations until after the season. Without an extension, Jackson doesn’t have any guaranteed money beyond his $23.016 million base salary for this season. Still, Baltimore remains tethered to the idea of Jackson as its franchise quarterback.

“I said at the beginning that it will happen when it’s time, and when it’s time, it will happen,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said before the start of the season. “So, Lamar is playing quarterback, he’s going to be playing quarterback here for a long time.”

Cincinnati knows Burrow could be in line for a big payday in 2023, the first year he is eligible to sign a contract extension. Team president Mike Brown is no stranger to paying a premium for quality quarterbacks. In 2005, Cincinnati gave quarterback Carson Palmer, the team’s previous No. 1 overall pick before Burrow, a six-year extension worth up to $119 million, making him one of the game’s highest-paid players at the time.

Before the start of this season, Brown acknowledged his fondness for Burrow and that he knows a future paycheck will have to be written soon.

“Right now, our obvious, most important issue will be with our quarterback,” Brown said in July. “It’s not quite ready or ripe yet, but it’s right down the track. We see the train coming.”