OWINGS MILLS, Md. (AP) — Lamar Jackson has started only seven pro games, is barely old enough to drink in Maryland and has never participated in the NFL postseason.
Fortunately for Jackson and the Baltimore Ravens, experience isn't a requirement for success in the playoffs.
Jackson will become the youngest quarterback in NFL history to start in a postseason game Sunday when Baltimore hosts the Los Angeles Chargers. That might seem like a big deal to some, but Jackson isn't at all impressed with himself.
"I was 21 all year, so this is another game for me," the rookie said Wednesday. "I'm here to play football."
Jackson turns 22 on Monday, and intends to provide himself with an early present.
"That win, I can taste it," he said. "It's like Thanksgiving — you know, that food, sweet potato pie. I'm trying to taste that victory for my birthday."
After winning the 2016 Heisman Award at Louisville, Jackson threw for 27 touchdowns and ran for 18 with the Cardinals last year and yet some still suggested he wasn't ready to be an NFL quarterback. Baltimore disagreed, trading up to take Jackson with the 32nd overall pick in the draft. He expected to serve as a backup for the entire season, but that plan changed after starter Joe Flacco was forced out with a hip injury.
Jackson took over on Nov. 18 and sparked a run-heavy offense that has flourished under its young, versatile quarterback. Baltimore (10-6) won six of its last seven games to capture the AFC North and earn a rematch with the Chargers, who lost to the Ravens 22-10 on Dec. 22.
"They're a very physical football team and they make you play very disciplined because of their quarterback," Chargers coach Anthony Lynn said. "We just have to do a little better job this time than we did the first time."
Though Flacco regained his health in the middle of Jackson' seven-game run, coach John Harbaugh opted to still with the rookie. Jackson, in turn, convinced his teammates that he's got what it takes to carry and offense all the way to the Super Bowl.
"Every single game he's definitely getting a little bit more calm, more confident in what he does," seven-time Pro Bowl guard Marshal Yanda said. "Young guys have a chance to grow in every single game, and I think he's done that."
Once perceived to be the Ravens quarterback of the future, Jackson is their quarterback right now.
Asked Wednesday if could have envisioned his first season playing out this way, Jackson replied, "I can't lie, I didn't think about it at all. I told them when I came in that I just wanted to sit out and learn. I got my ticket in the middle of the season, and we're having success."
With Jackson zipping and twisting his way through the opposition, the Ravens amassed 1,607 yards rushing over the final seven weeks. The next-closest team was Seattle with 1,190. Jackson's teammates have totally bought into the old-school attack, so much so that wide receivers are blocking with intensity instead of complaining about running pass patterns without being targeted.
"Those guys just blocking their tails off," Jackson said. "Sometimes they won't get a catch that game. I'd be madder than they would."
Baltimore's success has a lot to do with it. John Brown was far more productive when Flacco was at quarterback, but with Jackson leading the way, the 28-year-old is in the playoffs again for the first time since 2015 with Arizona.
"We're winning," Brown said. "If no one can stop it, you might as well keep doing it."
Jackson arrived in Baltimore barely removed from his junior year in college. Now he's a man.
"Lamar's maturity has impressed me greatly," Harbaugh said. "You see it in the interview room, our players see it when he walks around. He's very comfortable with who he is, and that's a sign of maturity, for sure. He's been excellent."
Flacco was a 23-year-old rookie when he started for Baltimore in the 2008 playoffs. Robert Griffin III, currently the Ravens third-string quarterback, was 22 when he started for Washington in the 2012 postseason.
And now we have Jackson, the youngest ever.
"In the NFL," Brown said, "age don't mean nothing if you can play."
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