The Ravens allowed their worst fears in the door as they fell down 10-0 to the Tennessee Titans in the AFC wild-card round Sunday. But with a combination of Lamar Jackson’s timely brilliance and a punishing, focused defense, they put their playoff failures behind them. Here are five things we learned:
The Ravens met their ghosts head on, and their win was far more satisfying because of it.
The Ravens needed less than 15 minutes of game time to invite all their worst fears into the already-unwelcoming environs of Nissan Stadium.
They did not want to concede an early lead to the Titans, who’d stepped on their necks 12 months earlier in a humiliating playoff upset. Sure enough, the scoreboard read 10-0 with 1:43 left in the first quarter.
Lamar Jackson did not want to start his day with an interception, as he had in that 28-12 defeat last January. Sure enough, he misfired badly on an early downfield shot to Miles Boykin, gifting the ball to Titans cornerback Malcolm Butler.
The Ravens defense did not want to be knocked on its heels by Tennessee’s great playmakers, Derrick Henry and A.J. Brown. Sure enough, Brown outran and outmuscled Marlon Humphrey three times on Tennessee’s first touchdown drive.
The same pit that had swallowed them a year ago looked awfully wide and awfully hungry.
But these Ravens were shaped by harder things than victory. Most of them had lived with the disappointment of last season as a constant companion. They had all lived with the frightening unknowns created by a COVID-19 outbreak and with the very real possibility that they might not return to the playoffs at all.
Who were they to be rattled by another adverse scenario?
“Nobody even blinked,” coach John Harbaugh said after he emerged from a joyous and relieved postgame locker room.
This was not just another good performance from a team that’s won 26 games over the past two seasons. The particulars — Jackson’s Houdini-level escapes against a defense expertly designed to contain him, a remarkable display of focus and blunt force against Henry — were impressive enough. But the context elevated everything. This was the opponent that had haunted and annoyed them like no other. For a quarter, everything went wrong. And instead of tumbling into their personal hell, the Ravens pulled out their best stuff.
Harbaugh, who won 10 playoff games and a Super Bowl in his first seven seasons, felt moved to call it the most satisfying victory of his career.
Defensive end Derek Wolfe, who played an essential role in the stand against King Henry, spoke of how every snap feels precious to this group, which has conducted so much of its business over Zoom links and from behind masks.
All of it paid off in Nashville as the Ravens performed their stirring exorcism.
Lamar Jackson reminded us that a good plan is not always enough against a great player.
It was not hard to pinpoint the moment when the story flipped. Jackson dropped back to pass on third-and-9 with the Ravens trailing by seven. Titans defenders converged on him from both sides. No. 8 darted out of the maelstrom and into open space, swerved around safety Kevin Byard without decelerating and beat three more would-be tacklers to the right edge of the end zone. Tie game.
“It’s the best run I’ve ever seen from a quarterback,” Harbaugh said.
Did it change the psychological tide? “I really don’t know,” Harbaugh said, his grin peeking out from behind his mask. “But it made me feel a lot better — I can tell you that.”
Jackson has trained us to expect these moments over the last 2½ seasons, so it was ridiculous on some level that we wondered if he could do it in the playoffs. As ESPN analyst Louis Riddick said in a conversation last week, Jackson’s talent and competitive will were too great to remain bottled forever.
Make no mistake; the Titans came in with a smart plan. They used cornerback Desmond King to spy on the edge against Jackson, and their discipline kept him from getting loose until his 48-yard touchdown scramble. Even after that, they swarmed him when he tried to puncture the middle of their defense on designed keepers. But you can contain Jackson on 75% of his carries and still lose because of what he does with the other 25%.
As usual, he did not produce overwhelming numbers through the air. But he did enough damage on outside throws, particularly to Marquise Brown, to quiet another familiar strain of criticism.
The Ravens have gifted, decorated players up and down their roster, but all of them will tell you the team rises and falls with Jackson. Since his earliest games as a starter, they’ve believed.
Humphrey, for example, said he expected to beat the Titans as soon as Jackson finished sharing words of determination with his teammates on Saturday evening.
Because of their faith, they took personally the barbs tossed at Jackson for his 0-2 playoff record. “I’m happy for myself, but I’m almost more happy for Lamar, you know?” Humphrey said. “I know it’s a team game, but it seems like whenever it’s a loss, it’s always just his fault.”
The release of two years’ worth of pressure on the reigning Most Valuable Player provided catharsis for the entire locker room. “I’m super proud of him,” Brown said. “Just to get that monkey off his back.”
The Ravens’ grand design on defense paid off.
With so much focus on Jackson, it was easy to forget how the Titans destroyed the Ravens at the line of scrimmage last season.
General manager Eric DeCosta geared his offseason efforts toward making sure this would not happen again. He traded for 6-foot-8, 300-pound run obliterator Calais Campbell and signed the 6-5, 285-pound Wolfe as a bookend. If backs such as Henry were to gash the Ravens in 2020, they would have to defeat mountains of determined beef.
With Campbell and nose tackle Brandon Williams injured for the Ravens’ Nov. 22 matchup against the Titans, we didn’t see a fair test of this resistance plan. Don “Wink” Martindale’s defense held the advantage for three quarters but ceded control to Henry in the deciding moments.
So the playoff rematch shaped up as a genuine mystery. Would the Ravens have answers for an elite offense built on Henry’s relentlessness and quarterback Ryan Tannehill’s complementary deep strikes?
Martindale’s crew answered with one of the best all-around performances in the history of a franchise built on defense. Wolfe, Campbell and Williams built a wall up front, and outside linebackers Pernell McPhee and Matthew Judon held the edges with real ferocity. Henry had surpassed 100 yards 10 times this season and led the league in runs of more than 10 yards. His longest gain against the Ravens went for 8.
“Physical,” Wolfe said when asked to explain the plan. “Physical, physical, physical.”
“He didn’t really get great momentum downhill,” Harbaugh said. “Then, we were able to hit him with multiple helmets and take him back, and that’s what you have to do.”
No one had stopped Henry to this degree, but the Ravens knew it would not be enough if Tannehill turned them into marionettes with play action. Instead, after A.J. Brown’s initial burst of productivity, their defensive backs and linebackers cut off Tannehill’s downfield looks, holding him to 6.3 yards per attempt, down from 7.9 in the regular season. Jimmy Smith’s return from weeks of nagging injuries helped as did the maturation of rookie linebackers Patrick Queen and Malik Harrison.
The Ravens never seemed to tire or stop barking out presnap adjustments to Tennessee’s designs. They delivered a masterpiece of focus and force.
Marquise Brown was the most productive wide receiver on the field, removing an essential advantage for the Titans.
As A.J. Brown used his 226-pound frame and 4.49 speed to outdo Humphrey in the first quarter, it was easy to imagine another offseason of lamentations over the Ravens’ talent deficit at wide receiver.
This was a popular theme as analysts previewed Sunday’s matchup. Many expected the Titans to frustrate Jackson, again, by daring him to target his receivers along the sidelines.
Jackson took that dare, throwing nine of his 24 attempts to Marquise Brown, who finished the day with seven catches for 109 yards, better than A.J. Brown and Corey Davis combined. Eight weeks ago, when the Titans beat the Ravens, the receiver known as “Hollywood” caught zero passes while Davis and A.J. Brown combined for nine catches and 175 yards.
“He’s come up big for us, man,” Harbaugh said of his No. 1 wide receiver. “He’s made so many plays. He’s come up big for us; catch-and-run plays, over-the-top plays — he has.”
Brown’s 5-foot-9, 180-pound frame will always limit his ability to post up opposing defensive backs and break tackles. But he used his quickness to get open and pick up vital yards after the catch against the Titans. He was also terrific in the Ravens’ playoff loss last year, suggesting his nickname amounts to more than youthful bravado.
With no tortured history at play, the Ravens can look forward to a terrific matchup in Buffalo.
If the Ravens thought they were headed to Kansas City to slay another albatross, the Cleveland Browns shredded that storyline as quickly as they shredded the Steelers on Sunday night.
As we stared, gobsmacked, at the epic flameout in Pittsburgh, compasses tilted north, toward a matchup with the ascendant Buffalo Bills.
This has to be a favorable draw compared with Patrick Mahomes and the defending Super Bowl champions, right? Think again. The Bills outplayed the Chiefs and every other team in the AFC over the last two-thirds of the season. Josh Allen has all the arm and leg talent his loudest draft advocates touted, and he’s done remarkable work tightening up his mechanics and judgment. He and former Maryland star Stefon Diggs forged the NFL’s most prolific aerial connection of 2020.
The Ravens just played their best defensive game of the season, but they’ll have to be every bit as good against a Buffalo offense that finished second in scoring, second in total yardage and first in third-down efficiency.
Where does a Ravens fan find hope? Well, Allen relies heavily on Diggs (127 catches on a whopping 166 targets), and the Ravens covered No. 1 receivers better than any team remaining in the playoffs. On defense, Buffalo allowed opponents to average 4.6 yards per carry and just gave up 472 total yards in a narrow wild-card victory over the Indianapolis Colts. If the Colts had finished drives a little more efficiently, the Bills would already be out of the playoffs. Was that performance a fluke or a sign Buffalo isn’t actually a juggernaut against quality opposition?
This matchup doesn’t carry the narrative punch of Ravens-Titans or Ravens-Chiefs but offers football intrigue aplenty. We’ll hear vigorous debates about which 2018 first-round pick, Jackson or Allen, is further along. We’ll anticipate a tactical battle between two of the league’s best coaching staffs. We’ll keep an eye on the forecast (30% chance of snow showers on Saturday night, per the National Weather Service).
Sounds like January football at its finest.
Saturday, 8:15 p.m.
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