Their tone was funereal.
For three months, the 2019 Ravens had floated on a giddy collective high, learning how glorious it felt to believe in each other and in their ability to conquer every situation. Had it even occurred to them that it might all end in three hours? How could a tipped pass here and a blown coverage there derail the greatest trip of their professional lives?
Regret took on myriad shades in the moments after their 28-12 playoff loss to the Tennessee Titans. For quarterback Lamar Jackson, it was self-recrimination and a sense that “we got out of our element.” For cornerback Marlon Humphrey, it was the harsh realization that, to the outside world, the Ravens were chokers. Outside linebacker Matthew Judon summed up the shock as well as anyone: “You don’t ever expect to get into a car crash until you get into a car crash.”
But as these same Ravens cleaned out their lockers the next morning, it was equally clear they wanted another ride. They wanted to be asked the same questions and have their chance to provide different answers.
Much happened to this team and the world around it over the past 12 months — unsettling doubts raised by a COVID-19 outbreak, an invigorating stand for social justice, on-field twists that defied belief. But on Sunday, the Ravens will get the chance they’ve coveted since Jan. 11, 2020. Not only will they try to win a playoff game for the first time in six years and for the first time with Jackson at quarterback, they’ll do it against the Titans.
“I think almost the second that we lost that last game last year, I was thinking about, ‘I want to get back to this moment. I want to get back to this moment, so we can see what we can do,’” tight end Mark Andrews said. “We’ve got such a talented team. For us, the sky is the limit. … I’m excited to show the world what we can do.”
The 2020 Ravens are not the same as the 2019 Ravens. They did not rampage over the NFL landscape this time around. In fact, they had to win their last five games just to survive a crowded AFC playoff dash. They’re defined as much by disappointment and injury as by Jackson’s brilliance or coach John Harbaugh’s fortitude. Has this hardening equipped them to write a different story for a different January?
“They’re at full strength. Tennessee’s at full strength. Now, let’s see what happens,” ESPN “Monday Night Football” analyst Louis Riddick said. “There’s no more excuses. I think they’re ready to roll. I like how this team is trending.”
For a national audience, questions about the Ravens’ chances are inevitably viewed through the lens of Jackson’s odyssey. He’s their best and most captivating player, the league’s reigning Most Valuable Player and “Madden NFL 21” cover boy. But he’s 0-2 in the playoffs, and until this changes, apostates will feel emboldened to dissect his throwing motion and his capacity to play from behind.
“I just laugh at it,” cornerback Marcus Peters said. “They try to criticize him and then they also compare him to the greats — like Peyton Manning didn’t win a playoff game; he was 0-3 at first. My whole thing is, ‘Just watch the young man grow.’”
Jackson does not always laugh off the skeptics. But he also does not see his team as the same one that could not rally against the Titans. He’s made no secret that the COVID-19 outbreak, which sidelined him and more than 20 teammates, rekindled his passion for playing.
“Our team is just hungry right now, and that’s just what we need,” he said. “We need to be hungry; we need to be doubted. I feel like we play better like that.”
The Titans didn’t do anything exotic to beat Jackson last year. They won battles along the line of scrimmage, used a linebacker to spy and dared receivers to beat them in man-to-man coverage. “They did some nice things, schematically, but nothing we hadn’t seen before,” offensive coordinator Greg Roman said.
Roman has tweaked his high-powered running attack since the Titans last faced it in November, using a sixth offensive lineman more frequently and varying his backfield alignments. The Ravens have averaged a staggering 267.4 rushing yards over their past five games.
Tennessee’s defense, meanwhile, took a step back this season, and Riddick sees it as ripe for Jackson to attack.
“As much as I like this team overall, they don’t rush the passer very well and they are very suspect from a coverage perspective in the middle of the field, which is where Baltimore likes to attack,” said the former NFL safety and current candidate in several general manger searches. “I think there’s a lot of things working in Lamar’s favor if he has to throw the football a lot. He’s just going to have to answer the bell.”
Riddick believes Jackson will bust out in the playoffs, whether it’s this year or down the line. “He’s too good of a competitor,” he said. “He’s too good of an athlete.”
The greater challenge for the Ravens is the same one that doomed them last January and again in Week 11: Tennessee’s devastating offense built around Derrick Henry and Ryan Tannehill.
The 6-foot-3, 247-pound Henry seems impervious to tackles. You think you have him stopped for five yards, and he gets 10. You think you’ve contained him, as the Ravens did for three quarters in November, and he owns the endgame.
If your defense sells out to confront this overwhelming force, Tannehill takes center stage with his play-action missiles to A.J. Brown and Corey Davis. No matter which measure you pick — ESPN’s QBR, Pro Football Focus grades, Football Outsiders’ DVOA — he’s been a top-10 quarterback this season.
“This is a team that can light you up,” Riddick said.
Ravens defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale does not want his players to feel shell shocked if Tannehill connects on a 45-yard touchdown pass or Henry breaks a 66-yard run. “Just go and make the next play,” Martindale has repeated all week.
When Ravens general manager Eric DeCosta went shopping last spring, he sought imposing defensive ends who were built to cut off the outside zone runs Henry favors. Calais Campbell and Derek Wolfe lived up to their rugged reputations this season, and the Ravens are eager to play the Titans with Campbell and nose tackle Brandon Williams, both of whom missed the Nov. 22 meeting with injuries.
“When Coach Harbaugh talked to me for the first time after they traded for me, he pretty much told me that we’re going to play a lot of teams that do a lot of this zone stuff and just play downhill football,” said Campbell, who has 12 tackles for loss in eight career meetings with the Titans. “He knows from watching my tape and studying me, he knows I do that well. … These situations, stopping guys like Derrick Henry, I love this game of football, and it’s a great challenge.”
The Titans have upset the Ravens twice in a row. Harbaugh confronted several players, including Brown and cornerback Malcolm Butler, after the Titans held their pregame meeting on the Ravens’ midfield logo in November. That led to an exchange between him and Titans coach Mike Vrabel.
Did this extra spice mean much as the teams prepared for a third high-stakes meeting in 12 months?
“I try to tell them that it doesn’t matter what you did last week, or before when you played them,” Vrabel said. “None of that is going to matter. The only thing that is going to matter is the preparation and how we play on Sunday.”
Regardless of how he feels about his Tennessee counterpart, Harbaugh would surely endorse this message. As much as his players want to improve on their performance from 12 months ago, they’ve downplayed any specific desires to give the Titans comeuppance.
“Everything is different,” said Campbell, who wasn’t part of the playoff loss but faced the Titans in plenty of divisional bloodbaths as a Jacksonville Jaguar. “I feel like a lot of times, you get caught up in history and all of that. At the end of the day, the goal is to win the Super Bowl. We have an opportunity, and they’re in our way.”
Andrews remembers how his injured ankle hurt in the last playoff game and how his pride hurt after a Jackson passed caromed off his hands and into the arms of Titans safety Kevin Byard. Those are the wrongs he’s waited a year to right.
“We’re not worried about them,” he said. “We’re worried about us — doing our job.”
Sunday, 1 p.m.
TV: Chs. 2, 7, ESPN
Radio: 97.9 FM, 1090 AM
Latest Baltimore Ravens
Line: Ravens by 3