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At the end of a breakthrough rookie season, quarterback Lamar Jackson leaves Ravens needing more

At the last postgame news conference of the Ravens’ season, the first player to offer a postmortem was Lamar Jackson. The rookie quarterback walked to the lectern before a nearly standing-room-only crowd of reporters and cameras, beaten but still buoyant. He did not speak until spoken to.

Two weeks earlier, the Ravens had stamped themselves as playoff contenders, defeating the Los Angeles Chargers by double digits, on short rest, over 2,500 miles from home. A week ago, they’d won the AFC North title and a playoff matchup with the Chargers in the AFC’s wild-card round. Now their season was over, their Super Bowl hopes extinguished Sunday by a 23-17 loss at M&T Bank Stadium. What had changed in two weeks?

“Nothing,” said Jackson, the NFL’s youngest-ever quarterback to start a playoff game. “We just played like we didn’t want to be here — I did, not my team.”

In a season of tectonic plate shifts in Baltimore — from one game under .500 to four games over, from the franchise quarterback and Super Bowl Most Valuable Player to the rookie and Heisman Trophy winner — Jackson’s comments rightly underscored the fluidity of football fortune. In Week 16, the Ravens had played ugly in Carson, Calif., and won. In their first postseason game since the 2014 season, before their first home playoff crowd since the 2012 season, the Ravens had played uglier. And still they had a chance to win late.

Nothing except the result might have changed in two weeks. But the Ravens’ demise could usher in an offseason reconstruction that is closer to a total overhaul than a minor touch-up. Change was always inevitable. The Ravens’ three-quarter no-show on offense just showed why.

With about nine minutes left in the fourth quarter, the Ravens trailed by 20. Jackson was 3-for-10 for 25 yards and an interception, his quarterback rating as low as humanly possible: zero. The running game, the best in the NFL since Jackson took over in Week 11, had been ground to a halt. The Ravens were averaging less than 3 yards a play.

That was always the risk of a rematch. In the Ravens’ run to the playoffs, over six wins in seven games, no opponent had more than a week and a half to prepare for an offense that bucked convention. Where other teams passed, the Ravens ran, over and over again, and with their first-round pick, no less.

But even with far less help — starting defensive tackle Brandon Mebane and starting linebacker Jatavis Brown both missed the game — the Chargers looked far more prepared than any opposing defense has. They had limited the Ravens to 159 rushing yards two weeks ago, but in that trial-and-error, they emerged with a plan for Sunday’s game.

On all but one of their defensive snaps, the Chargers played seven defensive backs on the field, according to NFL Next Gen Stats — more than they’d used seven defensive backs all season. No team had used seven defensive backs on more than 18 snaps in a game this season. The Chargers were light but fast, and they gave the Ravens no room to run.

“The more times you see that offense, the better you’re going to be against it,” Chargers coach Anthony Lynn said after his team held the Ravens to 90 rushing yards, by far their lowest with Jackson starting. “I used to run that offense, and I remember we started off really fast, but, once people got enough tape on us, they could catch up. And I think that’s what happened today, we saw it enough.”

But what made the Ravens vulnerable to offensive disappearances also made improbable comebacks possible. John Harbaugh, who said he plans to return as coach next season despite speculation over a possible trade, acknowledged afterward, “We can be a better football team, for sure, but I don’t think we can be a better team, play together any better than we did.” The Ravens’ fourth-quarter rally was as much a testament to that as any other stretch of play this season.

Jackson finished the game 14-for-29 for 194 yards, and the last of his two touchdowns, a fourth-down throw to wide receiver Michael Crabtree, drew the Ravens to within a touchdown with under two minutes remaining. After a Chargers three-and-out, the Ravens took over at their 34-yard line with 45 seconds remaining.

Two plays later, the game was over, Jackson having lost the ball on his third fumble of the game on a strip-sack by linebacker Uchenna Nwosu.

“I feel like there were a lot of things we could have done, I could have done, I feel, [to] put us in a better situation,” said Jackson, who was sacked seven times Sunday and finished the season with 15 fumbles. “We have to move on now, get ready for next year.”

There are no guarantees of what that will look like. Jackson certainly will be at the center of it, good and bad. Despite late-game cries for backup and former starter Joe Flacco, Harbaugh said Jackson “is our quarterback going forward.” Safety Eric Weddle called Jackson “the future” and predicted he’ll “come back 10 times better than he was this year.”

But from the NFL’s top-ranked defense (243 yards allowed Sunday), the Ravens could lose outside linebackers Terrell Suggs and Za'Darius Smith, inside linebacker C.J. Mosley and defensive end Brent Urban, all relied-upon contributors throughout the season, all free agents entering the offseason. Defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale has not yet been mentioned as a top candidate for the NFL’s eight head coaching vacancies, but it would take only one interested franchise for the Ravens to lose a much-loved, highly valued assistant coach.

“Everybody in this locker room wanted to win,” said outside linebacker Matthew Judon, who had a team-high-tying two tackles for loss. “It cuts you, to come up that close, and work this hard. To come up short, and unfortunately, there’s only one Super Bowl winner, so it leaves you a little empty.”

Eight months separate the Ravens from their next regular-season game, more than enough time for Ravens opponents to sniff out the secret sauce in their running offense — and for Jackson and the offense around him to evolve, too.

He was asked only five questions after he tried to answer what had happened Sunday, and then he walked out of the conference room and into the locker room. As reporters entered and teammates exited, some for the last time, he sat by himself near his locker, sometimes huddling with team staffers.

In seven regular-season starts, there was so much he had done. In his one and only playoff start, he had left many wondering why he couldn’t have done more.

jshaffer@baltsun.com

twitter.com/jonas_shaffer

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