At the beginning of a Ravens season that would defy their expectations, test their patience and end with the same crushing disappointments of the year before, coach John Harbaugh seemed to see the future.
“Is anything normal in 2020?” he said in early September, days before the team’s season opener. “I guess we’ll find out.”
The Ravens’ season ended Saturday night in the dark and cold of Western New York, in a playoff game that was anything but normal, a 17-3 loss to the Buffalo Bills that tested the limits of predictability.
Quarterback Lamar Jackson hadn’t thrown a red-zone interception in his short but brilliant NFL career. Then he threw a pick-six that all but doomed the Ravens to their second AFC divisional-round exit in as many years.
Kicker Justin Tucker hadn’t missed two straight field-goals since 2018. Then he doinked his first field-goal attempt off one upright inside Bills Stadium and his second off the other.
The Ravens had clinched a playoff berth in Week 17, completing a desperate climb back from the depths of the NFL’s worst coronavirus pandemic and a midseason slide, with an offensive explosion and Jackson looking like an All-Pro. Now they’ll enter the offseason with a John Harbaugh-era low for points and Jackson smarting from a game-ending concussion.
With the loss in Orchard Park, New York, the fifth-seeded Ravens were denied their first appearance in the AFC championship game since 2012. The Bills advanced to their first since 1993; they’ll face either the top-seeded Kansas City Chiefs or the sixth-seeded Cleveland Browns with a spot in the Super Bowl up for grabs.
“Today just wasn’t our day,” defensive end Calais Campbell said. “Football fortune went against us. And honestly, we fought hard. We gave what we had. ... There’s plays out there that I definitely wish we could’ve had back that we could’ve made that would’ve changed the ball game. But we executed the game plan, and we tried to give ourselves a chance to win. Just wasn’t meant to be today.”
After a breakthrough win in a wild-card-round win over the Tennessee Titans, Jackson struggled for much of Saturday night as he fell to 1-3 overall in the postseason. In three quarters, Jackson was 14-for-24 for 162 yards and added nine carries for 34 yards. He was outdueled by Bills quarterback Josh Allen, a fellow 2018 first-round pick and All-Pro selection, who finished 23-for-37 for 206 yards and a touchdown.
The game swung on two third-quarter drives. For a game featuring two of the NFL’s top seven scoring offenses, it took a while for someone to reach the end zone. After punting three times in the first half, and going without a drive longer than 38 yards, Buffalo started the second half by covering 66 yards over 11 plays. Allen’s 3-yard pass to All-Pro wide receiver Stefon Diggs (Maryland), the only offensive touchdown all night, gave the Bills a 10-3 lead.
The Ravens’ response was methodical, encouraging — until it collapsed at the worst possible moment, with the worst possible outcomes. On a second-and-goal play from the Bills’ 9-yard line, Jackson’s throw to a wide-open Marquise “Hollywood” Brown, running free across the middle, fell short under pressure from defensive end Jerry Hughes.
On the Ravens’ next play, Jackson dropped back and didn’t seem to notice cornerback Taron Johnson lurking, reading Jackson’s eyes. Over two-plus NFL seasons, the league’s reigning Most Valuable Player had thrown 49 touchdowns and no interceptions in the red zone. But when Jackson wound up, Johnson broke on his pass to tight end Mark Andrews over the middle.
In a flash, the streak was over. Johnson’s interception return went for 101 yards, tied for the longest in NFL postseason history. Just a play before, the Ravens had been a misfire away from a tie game. Now they were down two touchdowns. They had rallied from a massive COVID-19 outbreak in November, a 6-5 record in December and a 10-0 deficit the week before. There would be no coming back this time.
“To get to the [AFC] championship game, you have to play two really great games, and things have to bounce your way,” Harbaugh said. “That didn’t happen for us today.”
When Jackson left the game minutes later, the Ravens’ chances seemingly went with him. After a bad snap from center Patrick Mekari, a problem for the offense all night, Jackson had hit his head as he tried to throw the ball away in the face of oncoming pressure. He lay on the field in agony before jogging to the locker room under the NFL’s concussion protocol. He did not return.
“He’s a tough guy, so anytime you see him go down,” tight end Mark Andrews said, “you know he’s feeling something.”
Backup Tyler Huntley nearly managed a miracle, but it was not to be. The undrafted rookie overthrew Brown (four catches for 87 yards) on a sure-thing touchdown pass on one drive, then couldn’t get the Ravens into the end zone on their last. The Ravens’ three points — tied for the fewest by a Harbaugh team since his 2008 arrival — were a haunting echo of the team’s last two offensively challenged playoff exits: a 23-17 loss to the Los Angeles Chargers in the 2018 season and a 28-12 loss to the Titans in 2019.
A sputtering run offense — running backs J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards had a combined 84 yards on 20 carries — and inconsistent special teams spoiled a mostly blameless night for the defense. The Ravens became the first team to lose a playoff game in which they outrushed their opponent by 100-plus yards and also had more passing yards. Diggs, whom Harbaugh had acknowledged was “one that got away,” finished with eight catches for 106 yards, but Allen was held to just 5.6 yards per attempt.
The Ravens’ defensive strategy was a changeup, but it gave them a chance. In 2019, they’d blitzed Allen on his first nine drop-backs and rarely let up thereafter. According to charting from that Week 14 win in Buffalo, defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale sent five or more pass rushers after Allen on 29 of his 46 drop-backs. Against the blitz, he had just 52 passing yards and took five sacks for 34 yards.
On Saturday, the Ravens waited until their fourth play to blitz Allen. By the end of the first half, they’d blitzed him just five times on 23 drop-backs, sacking him once. The Bills converted just four of 13 first downs overall, and Allen was sacked twice, never looking as comfortable as he had all season.
“I’m very proud of the way our defense played,” Harbaugh said. “I thought they played their hearts out. They played really good football, and [so did] all of our team. I’m not disappointed in anybody.”
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No roster is perfect, but the prime-time defeat will cast a harsh light on the Ravens’ deficiencies. The pandemic seemed to stunt Jackson’s offseason development. The Ravens still lack playmaking receivers beyond Brown and Andrews. The offensive line was never settled after losing guard Marshal Yanda to retirement and left tackle Ronnie Stanley to injury. A midseason trade for defensive end Yannick Ngakoue (Maryland) upgraded the pass rush only marginally.
Yet over an 11-win season, the Ravens had managed to stay afloat. They were not the NFL’s best team, as they had been for much of 2019, but they believed their adversity had hardened them, had made them dangerous. So perhaps it was fitting that their Super Bowl hopes would be first punctured Saturday by the element they had least expected: special teams play.
There was a possibly shanked, possibly wind-swept 23-yard punt from Sam Koch that gifted Buffalo a short field on its first-quarter field-goal drive. There was a false start from long snapper Morgan Cox after a subsequent Ravens three-and-out.
And then there was maybe the night’s biggest shocker. Tucker was 11-for-11 on field-goal attempts inside 50 yards in his playoff career entering Saturday night. With the winds off Lake Erie swirling madly, he missed his first try from 41 yards on the Ravens’ opening drive, and another from 46 yards on their fourth drive. The first hit the left upright, the second the right upright.
“I think that wind pretty much helped him miss a few kicks,” left tackle Orlando Brown Jr. said. “ ‘Tuck’ is the greatest kicker to ever play this game. I’ve got a lot of respect for him. His job isn’t easy.”
It was the first time since 2015 that Tucker had missed a field goal in consecutive weeks. Even his lone make, a 34-yarder at the end of the first half that evened the score, sneaked just inside the uprights.
Everything that should’ve been going according to plan wasn’t, not exactly. It had been that kind of season. It would be that kind of game.