Roars turned to boos and hope gave way to despair at M&T Bank Stadium on Sunday as the Ravens fell behind by 20 points in the fourth quarter of their playoff game against the Los Angeles Chargers.
They almost wrote the latest chapter in their season-long narrative of resilience with a desperate rally that had 70,432 fans shaking the stands. But in the end, the Ravens’ plans for an extended playoff run perished on a fumble by rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson with 18 seconds left. They lost their first postseason game in four years, 23-17.
The Ravens were left with a mix of appreciation for all they’d accomplished and anguish that they could not carry the story forward.
“I loved this one,” 36-year-old linebacker Terrell Suggs said, when asked to sum up the season. “Everybody counted us out after we lost three in a row and we were 4-5, and we … win six of seven and we’re in. We took the [AFC] North; we did that. It’s just very unfortunate to end it on this note in a playoff game on our home field. You can take a lot of positives from this season, but we don’t want moral victories.”
The Ravens had pummeled the Chargers with their league-best defense two weeks earlier, but they had fewer answers for their well-balanced opponent this time around.
Disappointments abounded for Baltimore fans hoping to see the team that had stormed through the second half of the season. Jackson — the next face of the franchise — fumbled, overshot his receivers and generally floundered in the face of the most aggressive defense he’d ever encountered. On social media and in the stands, fans called for former starter Joe Flacco to enter the game in relief. They showered the rookie with disdain each time he walked onto the field in the fourth quarter, at least until he threw two touchdown passes to pull the Ravens with one score.
Greg and Angela Taylor of Severna Park felt awful for Jackson as they watched Chargers defenders eat up his running space and clobber him.
“They figured him out, and we didn’t have a Plan B,” Greg Taylor said. “We’ve got to figure out how to get the football going down the field. That’ll come with time.”
As the fourth quarter wound down, Jim Workmeister of Fallston wondered whether Flacco might get his chance at the stadium he once commanded.
“I was hoping they’d throw Flacco in there,” he said. “[The Chargers] adjusted [to Jackson]; they did a good job shutting us down.”
His wife, Therese, stuck up for Jackson. “He’s exciting, though,” she said. “It’s not all Lamar’s fault.”
Some fans left their seats as the game seemed to fall out of reach, only to watch from the stadium’s concourses as the Ravens came back.
Jeffrey Johnson of Catonsville said the team taxes his 60-year-old heart. “It’s always coming down to the last two minutes,” he said.
His wife, Cheryl, argued that such stress — whether the game ends well or not — comes with being a Ravens fan. “We fight to the death,” she said. “Wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Some players lashed back at the fans who seemed to turn on Jackson. “Because I’m standing there and they’re just, like, chanting Flacco’s name,” cornerback Jimmy Smith said. “And I love Flacco. But No. 8 got us here. So for the fact that you're a fair-weather fan that quickly, when things go rough, you turned your back on him. And that just got under my skin a little bit. So I just went to them and told them like, ‘Yo, you either ride or die, or you get the hell out of here, period.’ That was it.”
Jackson was not helped by his overwhelmed blockers or by historically dependable kicker Justin Tucker, who missed a field goal that would have cut the Chargers’ lead to six points in the third quarter.
He took responsibility, however, saying: “I felt like I played poorly. I feel like there were a lot of things we could have done, I could have done, to put us in a better situation.”
Fans began their day with the highest of hopes. Gone was the tense atmosphere from the previous week, when the Ravens scrambled to outrun the specter of recent disappointments in addition to the young, hungry Cleveland Browns.
The team had already exceeded expectations by winning six of its last seven regular-season games to make the playoffs behind Jackson.
Ravens history offered ample reason for confidence; in six previous trips to the postseason, coach John Harbaugh had never failed to win at least one game. The last time the Ravens hosted a playoff game, it proved to be the first step toward their second Super Bowl win.
They did their best to remind fans of that history, rolling out recently named Hall of Fame finalist Ed Reed as their honorary captain and giving Hall of Fame linebacker Ray Lewis the stage to do his signature squirrel dance just before kickoff.
The weather felt more like October than January, and in fact, the Ravens would not have minded chillier temperatures for their visitors from the West Coast.
The day’s narrative featured bittersweet elements, no matter the final result. Six years after he was named Super Bowl Most Valuable Player, Flacco took the field as a backup to Jackson, a position he described on Friday as “not the most fun.” The Ravens are expected to trade or cut their longtime leader in the offseason, so this was probably Flacco’s last home game in Baltimore.
He offered kind words for his successor after the most disappointing game of Jackson’s young career. “I thought Lamar did a great job of just hanging in there,” Flacco said.
The afternoon carried the same end-of-an-era potential for Suggs, who’s played more games as a Raven than anyone else. Suggs is a free agent and said he wants to remain a Raven for life. But if the team doesn’t offer him a contract, he plans to play somewhere else in 2019.
Other key players from the fearsome defense, including linebackers C.J. Mosley and Za’Darius Smith, safety Eric Weddle and cornerback Jimmy Smith, could also be on their way to other cities or, in Weddle’s case, to retirement.
The Ravens have announced that Harbaugh would return as coach in 2019, but they needed to work out an extension or risk losing him, eventually, to a long line of potential suitors.
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“I have every expectation, every plan, to be here as long as they want me here,” he said after the game.