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Lamar Jackson shows he can beat the best when not at his best

BALTIMORE — Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson was asked how the rain affected the passing game, and he let out a sigh of frustration before collapsing forward on the podium at his postgame media conference.

“You seen the balls. You seen them,” Jackson said. “Horrible.”

Jackson’s run of impressive passing numbers ended Sunday, but his ability to lead the Ravens to victory did not. In a 20-17 win over the San Francisco 49ers, Jackson proved that he can knock off a top team when not at the top of his game.

This wasn’t like the last three weeks when the Ravens were in so control of the game that Jackson spent his fourth quarters putting on sunglasses or dancing on the sideline with running back Mark Ingram. This was a heavyweight fight, where Jackson had to rely as much on determination as his athleticism in the final moments.

Jackson finished with a season-low 105 yards passing and lost his first fumble of the season. But in leading his third career winning drive in the fourth quarter or overtime, Jackson completed all three of his passes for 27 yards to set up Justin Tucker‘s 49-yard field goal.

What did Jackson show his teammates in a performance such as this?

“Just the toughness. Just the grit,” linebacker Matthew Judon said. “This isn’t ideal football weather, and he got it done. As he goes, we go. We all know that.”

Jackson entered Sunday’s game on one of the best hot streaks by a quarterback. The NFL Most Valuable Player front-runner had played three straight games with at least three touchdowns and no interceptions. Only four quarterbacks have had longer such streaks in NFL history: Tom Brady (four straight in 2007), Peyton Manning (four in 2013), Aaron Rodgers (four in 2014) and Russell Wilson (five in 2015).

That wasn’t going to happen in a constant downpour with winds that reached 15 mph. Jackson went 0-of-4 passing on third down. He entered the day completing 69% of his third-down passes, second-best in the NFL. Jackson was 3-of-6 for 18 yards when targeting wide receivers. That’s the fewest passing yards to wide receivers by a starting quarterback in a win this season, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

Jackson completed just four of 11 passes for 20 yards without the aid of play-action. That made it his worst passing game (completion percentage and yards) as a starter without play-action.

This isn’t the first time the weather has affected Jackson. In his other rain game this season, against the Seattle Seahawks, he connected on only nine of 20 throws.

“I was throwing passes behind my receivers,” Jackson said. “I hit Hayden [Hurst] on the sideline on the corner behind him [and] Seth [Roberts] on a drive route behind him. It was ticking me off. A lot of passes were getting away from me. It messed with me a lot.”

Where Jackson really hurt the NFL’s top-ranked defense was with his legs. He ran for 101 yards and one touchdown, including a 7-yard run on which he faked K’Waun Williams so badly that the cornerback fell to the ground.

Jackson’s biggest run was a 3-yard sneak on a fourth-and-1 from Baltimore’s 44-yard line. Eight plays later, Tucker hit the winning kick.

“I was a little nervous, but I wasn’t surprised,” wide receiver Willie Snead IV said of the fourth-down decision. “Coach [Harbaugh] gives us the green light. He has full confidence in Lamar and our offense.”

Jackson has now won eight straight starts. The only quarterback in the Super Bowl era with a longer streak before he turned 23 years old is Ben Roethlisberger, who won 13 straight in 2004.

Unlike many of Jackson’s previous wins — the double-digit margins against the Seahawks, Patriots, Texans and Rams — Sunday’s game was a grind. His first three drives in the second half ended with a fumble, a punt and a deflected pass on fourth down.

But when given the ball for the final time, Jackson found a way to win. He marched Baltimore into field goal range on a 12-play, 34-yard drive that took the remaining 6 minutes, 28 seconds off the clock.

“Him being a serious competitor, he puts a lot of pressure on himself,” guard Marshal Yanda said. “Great players that want to be great, they have that.”

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