Lamar Jackson walked down the home sideline at M&T Bank Stadium with a huge grin on his face, dapping up his offensive linemen one by one on the bench.
He started on the right side, then got to left guard Bradley Bozeman and left tackle Orlando Brown Jr. and the smile grew wider. There were planned handshakes for these two.
Jackson’s return to the starting lineup after his bout with COVID was joyous for both he and the rest of Ravens' offense, who have four games left of potentially must-win football after their 34-17 win over the Cowboys on Tuesday. And if they’re to make anything of this season, it’s going to come down to Jackson’s play in the final quarter of the year.
“It felt like I didn’t play a whole season,” Jackson said. “I was like, ‘It feels good to be back with my guys.’ Even in practice, walking into the locker room and stuff, I was like, ‘Man, I couldn’t wait to see you, your faces.’ It was like two weeks that I didn’t see those guys. I couldn’t wait to get out there and perform for those guys, because I know how much it would mean for us to win games — for sure.”
Jackson, at least statistically, didn’t light up the box score. He went just 12-of-17 passing for 107 yards and two touchdowns with an interception. But he ran for 94 yards and showed some of the same elusiveness in the pocket that made him so dominant a year ago.
His pass to Marquise Brown in the corner of the end zone for a touchdown was one of his prettiest passes of the season. His interception was off a tipped pass. He didn’t dominate the Cowboys through the air, but he didn’t need to as the Ravens ran for 294 yards on the ground.
“You could just feel the excitement,” Brown said. “As soon as he got on the field, he basically hugged everyone in the huddle. (He was) happy to be back, and we went from there.”
Jackson, who said postgame he still can’t taste or smell things after his coronavirus battle, had to prepare for Tuesday’s game through Zoom meetings for most of the week before his Sunday activation off the COVID list.
Away from his team, the Ravens were forced to put Trace McSorley in as the de facto No. 1 starter in practice (with Robert Griffin III on injured reserve) in Jackson’s absence. With no disrespect to McSorley, if Jackson was able to play the game physically, he was going to do so.
“Well, the one thing you do know about Lamar, you’re going to get everything he’s got — that’s really all you can ask for,” coach John Harbaugh said. “He’s going to give you whatever he has, and it turned out that he had a lot tonight. That was good to see.”
Jackson’s next week has the potential to make him even happier than Tuesday did. He’s set to get back tight end Mark Andrews and wideout Willie Snead for next Monday’s massive game against the 9-3 Browns. He’ll have a normal week of practice for the first time since before the Titans game and will once again have his full assortment of weapons offensively. If that game isn't a must-win, it's as close as one can get.
The Ravens have four games left in their season, and if they want to make a playoff appearance, they’ll need Jackson and the offense to repeat their performance four more times. But if they want to make a run, they’ll need even more.
“I expected exactly what he did,” inside linebacker Patrick Queen said. “He came out there and played a complete game. He gave us his all — that’s the stuff you expect from Lamar. He’s a great quarterback, a great guy, a great leader. We just have to follow behind him and push him to be the best he can be every day and just have his back no matter what.”