Ravens have clear path to AFC North crown with Big Ben injury

Baltimore Ravens

Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is out for the year, leaving Lamar Jackson and the Ravens as heavy favorites to repeat in the AFC North

Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson already has had a historic start to the 2019 season. And now, with a key loss suffered by a division rival, he might just have received a free path to the AFC North title.

The Pittsburgh Steelers announced on Monday that quarterback Ben Roethlisberger needs surgery on his right elbow and will be placed on the injured reserve, ending his season after two games. Roethlisberger suffered the injury in Sunday’s loss at home to Seattle as the Steelers fell to 0-2 on the year, their playoff hopes already looking bleak.

What’s the Steelers loss, though, is the Ravens gain. Baltimore has started the season 2-0 for the third time in the last four years with a blowout victory in Miami in Week 1 and another at home against the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday. The Ravens’ success so far this year is due largely to the play of their second-year quarterback, who already looked poised to surpass Roethlisberger as the best in the division.

Jackson went 6-1 in his rookie season in 2018 but at times struggled throwing the ball. In the season-opener this year, he didn’t take long to show he’s made rapid improvements with his arm. He threw for four touchdowns in the first half against Miami, eventually tying the Ravens franchise record with five touchdown passes in a 59-10 win. He kept it up on Sunday, becoming the first quarterback in league history to pass for 250-plus yards and run for 120 yards in a regular season game.

Jackson already has more touchdown passes this year, seven, than he did all of last year. He leads the NFL in touchdown percentage and quarterback rating. He’s yet to throw an interception and has completed nearly 72 percent of his passes. He’s also now 8-1 in his career as the Ravens starting quarterback.

The Ravens-Steelers rivalry has become known as one of the most passionate, physical matchups in the NFL for the past decade. But when Baltimore travels to Heinz Field in Week 5, the game won’t look the same. Three key pieces that have led the Steelers for the past few years will all be gone: Le’Veon Bell, Antonio Brown, and now Roethlisberger. The two teams play each other again in the season’s final week on Dec. 29 in Baltimore.

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With the Steelers now seemingly out of the playoff chase and the Cincinnati Bengals coming off a 24-point loss at home to the 49ers, the Ravens’ biggest competition for the North title would appear to be the Cleveland Browns. But the Browns, who were so heavily hyped in the offseason, lost by 30 to Tennessee in Cleveland last week. If the Browns don’t beat the New York Jets on Monday Night Football, all three of the Ravens’ division rivals will be 0-2.

The Ravens, in fact, might not have any challengers to the division title. And if Jackson continues to play the way he has so far in 2019, their aspirations might extend even beyond that.

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