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Believe that: Lamar Jackson transforms doubts to division title

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OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- It was 44 days ago when the Baltimore Ravens reached the bye week with a 4-5 record, a three-game losing streak and starting quarterback Joe Flacco on crutches.

Replacing a Super Bowl-winning quarterback with a rookie one typically signals rebuilding. Instead, Lamar Jackson became the focal point of a retooling for the Ravens, who have won six of his seven starts to capture the AFC North title.

"He exceeded [expectations] and excelled, and he made us believers," linebacker C.J. Mosley said. "When you’re on the sidelines seeing him make the plays he makes, extending plays, running the ball, making the whole offensive team better, you don’t see that a lot from a rookie quarterback. He took it in stride and he ran with it. He got us to where we are now."

Jackson, the last of the five quarterbacks drafted in this year's first round, has become the first to reach the postseason. He did so with electric running, a tireless work ethic and poised leadership.

Few quarterbacks have made such an immediate impact like Jackson. Here are some of his accomplishments:

  • First rookie first-round pick to reach playoffs in six years (last was Robert Griffin III in 2012)

  • First AFC rookie quarterback to win a division title in seven years (last was T.J. Yates with Texans in 2011)

  • First rookie quarterback to clinch AFC North in 14 years (last was Ben Roethlisberger in 2004)

Jackson now finds himself in the AFC playoffs with a quarterback field that features a five-time Super Bowl champion (Tom Brady), a frontrunner for NFL MVP (Patrick Mahomes), an eight-time Pro Bowl passer (Philip Rivers), a top candidate for comeback player of the year (Andrew Luck) and the only player ever to throw for more than 4,000 yards with 25 touchdowns and rush for 500 yards and five touchdowns (Deshaun Watson).

Unlike those quarterbacks, the Ravens' success lies in how Jackson fits as their quarterback. He's part of the NFL's most dominant rushing attack, which keeps the No. 1 defense fresh. Both sides of the ball feed off each other.

"Lamar is a special, special person," safety Eric Weddle said. "He’s very genuine, he’s loyal, he’s humble, and he’s passionate. Those are qualities in such a young kid you don’t ever see. He’s all about team. He’s all about getting better and trying to lead us. I tip my hat off to him. I look forward to not just being on the same team as him, but being a fan of him, and supporting him for the rest of his career, because he’s going to do some special things."

This team concept has made Baltimore among the hottest playoff contenders. Since taking over as the starter in Week 11, Jackson has been the winningest quarterback in the NFL. He's 6-1 along with Dak Prescott and Russell Wilson.

"We’re not going to get on our high horse," Jackson said. "We’re just trying to fight for the championship."

Jackson remains a work in progress. He's missing too many throws, and his completion rate as a starter was 58.2 percent (30th in the NFL). He's having trouble holding onto the ball, fumbling a league-high 10 times in seven starts.

But Jackson is the biggest playmaker on the Ravens. Over the past seven weeks, he ranks No. 7 in the NFL with 556 yards rushing. In Sunday's 26-24 win over the Browns, Jackson scored two touchdowns and could have had two more if he had broken the plane on a goal-line leap and didn't have a 33-yard score negated by a questionable Maxx Williams holding penalty.

"Until you are on the field and see how quick Lamar Jackson is, and understand his ability to make plays and make some people miss out in space," Browns coach Gregg Williams said. "We had the space populated at times. We just didn’t make the plays."

Jackson will become the eighth rookie to win a division and start a playoff game in the Super Bowl era. The others were: Dan Marino (1983), Bernie Kosar (1985), Shaun King (1999), Roethlisberger (2004), Yates (2011), Griffin (2012) and Prescott (2016).

After Jackson spoke to the media, coach John Harbaugh hugged him, saying, "Congratulations, champion."

"I think if you want to write a book about this season, probably no one would believe it," Harbaugh said.