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Russell Wilson and Lamar Jackson Have Starring Roles in the NFL MVP Race

Midway through the 2019 season, the MVP race is heating up, and Wilson and Jackson have emerged as early frontrunners. Also, Philip Rivers and the Chargers found a needed spark after moving on from Ken Whisenhunt, the Panthers’ Cinderella quarterback, some insight from the Dolphins’ first win and much more.
Philip Rivers, Russell Wilson, Lamar Jackson

When I asked Russell Wilson about throwing to players he doesn’t know all that well—about 20 minutes after his Seahawks notched their seventh win of the season, a 40–34 overtime win against the Buccaneers—I didn’t expect he’d launch into a rundown of his offseason travel itinerary.

But there was a reason he did.

There was the trip to UCLA to go throw with rookie DK Metcalf. There was another summit after ESPYs in July with the rest of the Seattle skill players who were willing. There sessions early in the morning, and late at night, constantly building towards the place where the Seahawks are now.

“We just spend a lot of time together—and quality time throwing the football, catching, working out together,” Wilson says. “And then going to fun stuff, dinners and games, we went to the Padres game. Bonding moments were everything. ... We're a really young team and to get to know those guys on a personal level and where they want to go was big.”

And Wilson and the Seahawks are seeing the results of those bonding moments on the first Sunday of November, as Seattle fights to keep pace with the 49ers and the Rams in a very competitive NFC West.

Here’s proof: With less than a minute left in the game on Sunday, Wilson covered 53 yards and put the Seahawks in range for a game-winning field goal targeting, on three throws to receivers who weren’t on the team last year. After Seahawks kicker Jason Myers missed that 40-yard bid at the buzzer, Wilson turned back to those two players again in overtime to key what became the game-winning drive.

Rookie DK Metcalf drew a holding call on one, then caught a 29-yard back-shoulder dart from Wilson on another, to convert a third-and-six and move Seattle to the Tampa six. Two plays later, Wilson found tight end Jacob Hollister, who was traded from New England three days after Metcalf was drafted, for a 10-yard touchdown and the decisive points in a 40-34 win.

Wilson has clearly acclimated these players, something he sees as his responsibility. As it stands right now, as I see it, he’s locked in a very compelling race for league MVP with another guy who starred Sunday.

* * *

We’re at the midway point of the season, and a few guys played at a level in Week 9 that made the NFL MVP award worth discussing. We’ll also hit …

• What the Chargers’ coordinator change has done for Philip Rivers.

• The Panthers’ Cinderella quarterback who might not be such a Cinderella.

• What it’s been like to be a Dolphin over the long road to Win No. 1.

• How the 49ers have constructed a juggernaut.

But we’re starting with that compelling race for the NFL MVP. Texans QB Deshaun Watson, Panthers RB Christian McCaffrey and Saints WR Michael Thomas are all in the conversation. For our purposes this particular week, though, we’re going to focus on the two who I believe emerged as co-leaders: Wilson, who as of 8 p.m. ET was the brightest of Week 9, and Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson, who somehow topped Wilson’s performance by toppling Tom Brady and the unbeaten Patriots in primetime.

* * *

Lamar Jackson, Tom Brady

Something I didn’t know: Before the handshake Brady and Jackson shared postgame, Baltimore’s 22-year-old quarterback—born midway through Brady’s second year at Michigan—had never met the man he considers the best ever.

So what do you say in that situation if you’re Jackson? Well, after Brady told him Jackson he loved his game and to keep it going, Jackson responded, “You the GOAT.”

“I couldn't say nothing else to him,” Jackson says, after his Ravens sent the Patriots packing with a haymaker of a 37-20 loss.

“He's a cool guy,” Jackson continued, explaining what he likes about Brady’s game. “If you watch him on his dropbacks, he's just so poised in the pocket, always calm. Even if you see the little moves in the backfield to find a wide-open receiver or get a receiver open, he knows the job, and he's been in the game so long and that's why he has so much success."

Jackson’s on-field game doesn’t resemble Brady’s much. But when it came to remaining calm and finding the open receivers on Sunday, Jackson absolutely mirrored the quarterback he looks up to most. 

Against the Patriots on Sunday, Jackson once again delivered a performance that was so much more than his solid, unspectacular numbers (16 carries, 61 yards, two rushing TDs; 17-23, 163 yards, one passing TD) would indicate.

This is captured best when things got dicey for the Ravens—the point where so many other teams crumble in the face of the Patriots. After drives of 75, 54 and 77 yards staked the hosts to a 17-0 lead, ex-Patriot Cyrus Jones muffed a punt with 12:50 left in the first half, and momentum shifted. Baltimore only had one first down between the Jones fumble and the break, and the Patriots closed the deficit to 17-13.

“We just kept a level head on the sidelines,” Jackson says. “It's mistakes, it's part of football. You never know how it'll go. I just know we had to go back out there and respond. We couldn't get down off a touchdown because our job is to score touchdowns, win games, keep our defense off the field as much as we can.”

Peanut Onwuasor stopped the bleeding early in the third quarter; he stripped Julian Edelman at the 30-yard-line, and Marlon Humphrey scooped it up and went 70 yards to make it 24-13. But the Patriots kept the pressure on by coming back with an 11-play, 75-yard drive to close it back to 24-20, and put the onus on Jackson to keep the Ravens in control.

Jackson responded with, perhaps, his best throw of the night—staving off a potentially devastating three-and-out with corner-route dime over the arms of Patriot DB Terrence Brooks and to TE Mark Andrews, who went for 18 yards on this third-and-five. Six plays later, the Ravens put in Jackson’s hands again on fourth-and-four, and this time he found Willie Snead for seven yards on a quick out.

Six plays after that, Jackson found a wide-open Nick Boyle on second-and-goal

“Coach just called a great play,” Jackson says, on the touchdown. “We'd been running it all week. They gave us the perfect look for a 6-2 front. I just had to give him a great ball. He was wide open and delivered the baby."

It wasn’t a mistake that it went to Boyle, either. The Ravens knew they’d have to break their own tendencies to beat the masters of the gameplan defense—“Just take advantage of what the defense gives us, that's all”—and they did. That touchdown was the blocking tight end’s first in five years as a pro.

And it capped a crazy 14-play, 86-yard drive that took 8:09 off the clock was topped only by what the Ravens would do next. Baltimore followed an Earl Thomas pick on the Patriots’ next possession, with another 14-play drive, this one covering 68 yards, taking 9:35 off the clock, and effectively crushing the Patriots’ soul.

The key to both, as Jackson saw it, wasn’t about him being a hero—although he did plenty of that (the move he put on Patriots star Kyle Van Noy to pick up 11 at the end of the second drive was particularly nasty). No, it was about keeping the train on the tracks, which got accomplished. On neither drive did the Ravens face a third down with more than 7 yards to gain.

“We’re not trying to be in third-and-long,” Jackson says.

The final straw for the Patriots last night came on a third-and-goal from the one-yard line, with offensive tackle Orlando Brown literally picking Jackson up and carrying him across the goal line to make it 37-20. Which was an appropriate way for Brown to return the favor to a player who’d carried quite a heavy burden overall.

And just like that it was over, with Jackson having navigated everything the Patriots would throw at him.

“I don’t let myself get hype off everyone else's hype,” Jackson says. “I keep my mind focused in knowing what I want to do, what I want to accomplish with my teammates. And that’s come out with victories and that's what we did."

This game was a significant step in the pursuit of an individual victory at the end of the year. But if he’s worried about winning the MVP, he’s not showing it.

“Man, it’s cool but I just love winning and my job here is to win,” Jackson says. “Everything that comes, comes. But I want a championship. That’s my goal and that’s what I want."

* * *

Russell Wilson

For his part, Russell Wilson’s approach to the MVP award is similar to that of Jackson’s. When we spoke at 8 p.m. ET on Sunday, I told him he was my choice for league MVP, and he didn’t break stride.

“I'm keeping my head focused,” Wilson says. “I'm just trying to win another Super Bowl for us here. At the end of the day, it's the same: One day at a time. It's great to be mentioned in that category obviously, it means we're doing something right. My focus is on playing great the next day and next opportunity. It's about us, not me. It's about us and what we're doing as a team."

Seattle is tied with Green Bay for the third-best record in football, but the team is doing it differently than it has in the past. Wilson used to be more the game-manager, with a rugged run game and salty defense creating margin for error. And in this way, Wilson has become a little like Brady was.

Early in Brady’s run in New England, he was seen as a “game manager”, which wasn’t meant in a nice way. But he won three Super Bowls through his first five NFL seasons, and played really well, and that was enough. Then, Brady got paid, the dynamic changed and there were seasons in which the team retooled and he had to bear more of the brunt of the roster turnover.