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

In recent years, the games between the Cincinnati Bengals and the Baltimore Ravens have been defining moments for two of the game’s best young quarterbacks.

In 2019, Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson clinched the pinnacle 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 lit an exhausted Baltimore defense and set a franchise record for 525 passing yards in a Bengals rout. Burrow’s 941 yards in Baltimore last season was the most passing yards against 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), both tied 2-2, could play a pretty big role in who wins the division.

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

“The quarterback is an important part of our team,” Bengals coach Zac Taylor said ahead of Sunday’s prime-time game. “For him, it’s crucial that he does his best in the big moments, like he did.”

Burrow is eligible for a contract extension next offseason. So far he’s had a slower start than Jackson, 16th in the league in overall QBR (49.4) and 17th in completion rate (64.1). He is seventh in the league in passing yards (1,099) and sixth in touchdown passes (eight). He’s also been sacked 16 times, which is the third most in the NFL.

Jackson halted contract negotiations with the Ravens early in the regular season and is toying with his fifth-year option. Essentially, he’s betting on himself, and early returns suggest it was a smart move. Jackson is tied fifth in QBR, tied first with 11 TD passes, and the only QB in the top 25 in rushing as his 316 yards put him ninth in the league.

With the Pittsburgh Steelers at the dawn of the Kenny Pickett era and the Cleveland Browns yet to see what Deshaun Watson brings to their offense, he is currently serving an 11-game suspension for violating the league’s personal conduct guidelines following allegations of inappropriate behavior and sex assault in massage sessions, Jackson and Burrow are the most established quarterbacks in the division. Ultimately, how the AFC North prevail could very well depend on how these two play and that narrative begins to take shape on Sunday night.

BURROWS FIRST GAME vs. Baltimore was memorable for all the wrong reasons.

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

Six weeks later, Burrow suffered a season-ending knee injury. After an aggressive period of rehab, he turned the situation into a footnote when he recovered in 21 as one of the NFL’s most effective quarterbacks and led the league in higher-than-expected completion rate, according to NFL Next Gen Stats.

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

Part of the success was due to the struggles he had as a rookie.

“It was an opportunity [for] him to have a season to look back and learn the different styles that you’re going to see and the environments that you’re in and play the styles of defense,” Taylor said. “Coming back and having a great year, obviously he wants to build on that this year.”

Bengals running back Joe Mixon said the encounters against Baltimore showed Burrow’s ability to lengthen plays and throw big shots. But Burrow’s attitude could also be seen at crucial moments.

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

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

Earlier in the season, Burrow said he didn’t care about the numbers as long as the team was winning. In four games, the third-year quarterback’s performances have vacillated between a four-turnover appearance in a Week 1 loss to Pittsburgh and a consistent performance in last week’s win against the Miami Dolphins.

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

“The one who throws 530 yards,” Burrow said.

AS MUCH AS Burrow helped transform Cincinnati, nobody has changed the Ravens’ trajectory more than Jackson in the past decade.

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.

After Jackson replaced Joe Flacco as a starter, Baltimore was 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) is behind only Patrick Mahomes (53-14) among active quarterbacks since 2018.

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

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

Jackson has accounted for 84% of total yards for the league’s third-best offense, despite injuries on the offensive line and a sluggish 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 games have carried a team that has the 30th-ranked defense in the NFL. His 13 total touchdowns is more than 28 other offenses this season. Jackson has produced the longest run (79 yards) and second-longest pass (75 yards) this season.

“He’s dynamic,” said Jets coach Robert Saleh. “He deserves everything he asks if you ask me. But his arm, his legs, his mind, his toughness, his tenacity – you have to take care of everything.”

Though Jackson averages a career-high 8.54 yards per carry, he has made significant strides in throwing the ball that changed the identity of Baltimore’s offense. The Ravens once had the most run-heavy offense in the league, but Jackson has fallen behind to pass 60% of the time.

Jackson shows more patience and moves to buy time instead of charging into the field. He’s also become more confident when throwing into tighter windows and more effective at reading defenses.

“The difficult thing about him is… he’s gotten better,” said Patriots safety Devin McCourty.



Stephen A. Smith challenges the Ravens’ defense after their tough start to the season.

LEAGUE SOURCES TELL ESPN’s Adam Schefter in September that Jackson turned down an offer worth about $250 million. Sources told Schefter that Jackson’s desire was for a fully guaranteed deal, similar to the record-breaking $230 million deal the Browns gave Watson.

The sides agreed to suspend contract negotiations until after the season. Without an extension, Jackson has no guaranteed money this season beyond his $23.016 million base salary. Still, Baltimore remains tied to the idea of ​​Jackson as a franchise quarterback.

“I said at the beginning that it will happen when the time comes, and when it does, it will happen,” said Ravens coach John Harbaugh ahead of 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 face a big payday in 2023, the first year he’s 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 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.

Ahead of this season, Brown confirmed his fondness for Burrow and that he knows a future paycheck will soon be due.

“Right now, obviously our number one concern is going to be our quarterback,” Brown said in July. “It’s not quite ready or ripe yet, but it’s right on the track. We see the train coming.” Joe Burrow, Lamar Jackson look to make statement in AFC North

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