From the Ravens' lack of elite playmakers to their tense playoff outlook, here are five things we learned from their 27-24 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday.
There are no moral victories in the NFL, but the Ravens proved their formula works against the best.
Before the harder analysis, it’s worth noting that the Ravens delivered a terrific afternoon of football theater against one of the best, most exciting teams in the NFL.
This set up as a Ph.D.-level test of the formula that carried them through three consecutive wins over lesser teams.
Their approach worked well enough that they had the game in hand until Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes — the most exciting young talent to hit the NFL in a generation — wiggled free for a miraculous fourth-down completion with less than two minutes on the clock.
The Ravens nearly became the first team since the 1970s to rush for more than 200 yards in four straight games. They rallied from a seven-point halftime deficit with rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson at the controls. They threw Mahomes off his game (and hit him 15 times) with relentless blitzes designed by defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale. They delivered a terrific performance on special teams, highlighted by Cyrus Jones’ second game-altering punt return in three weeks.
They proved that even against an unstoppable opponent with a significant home-field advantage, they could impose their style of play.
That all feels like cold comfort to Ravens fans who watched their team fall short the past two Decembers, sometimes in games just as thrilling as this one.
Linebacker Terrell Suggs said it after the game: “We didn’t come here for no moral victories.”
Just remember that’s not the whole story. The Ravens were a very good team Sunday. They’re probably one of the 12 best in the league, whether they make the playoffs or not. Coach John Harbaugh has again kept his grip on a season that could have gotten away completely between a three-game losing streak and a hip injury to quarterback Joe Flacco.
If you look past the immediate disappointment, they’re a compelling team.
The Ravens’ playmakers don’t stack up with the best in the league, and it costs them against elite teams.
If you want to simplify the game to its essence, the Chiefs won because they had the three most dangerous offensive players on the field in Mahomes, wide receiver Tyreek Hill and tight end Travis Kelce.
Mahomes is a magician.
Everyone will remember the crazy fourth-down pass he threw to Hill on the dead run to extend Kansas City’s game-tying drive, but it wasn’t even clearly his greatest improvisation of the afternoon. On one play late in the second quarter, he scrambled right and then left before side arming a diagonal pass through three defenders to running back Spencer Ware. On another one, he went left and then right, before flicking a completion back to his left, to wide receiver Demarcus Robinson.
He’s like Magic Johnson or Wayne Gretzky, seeing possibilities that aren’t open to mere mortals. Jackson is a better pure runner than Mahomes, but he doesn’t see the field like that (neither does Joe Flacco), and it’s not clear such command can be taught.
Meanwhile, the Ravens went into the game knowing they had to stop Kelce. Harbaugh acknowledged during the week that he had to be treated as the equivalent of a No. 1 wide receiver. We asked whether the Ravens might shadow him with either Jimmy Smith or Marlon Humphrey — their most athletic one-on-one cover guys.
They chose not to do so, and Kelce hurt them early and often. He beat safety Anthony Levine Sr. for a third-down conversion. He beat cornerback Brandon Carr for another. Finally, he raced past three Ravens defenders to catch a 15-yard touchdown late in the second quarter.
The Ravens have struggled to cover tight ends all season, ranking 25th in the league, according to Football Outsiders’ DVOA statistic. They did a far better job on Kelce in the second half, in part because their blitzes threw the Kansas City passing game out of rhythm, but the damage he did early loomed large in the final result.
Hill took the baton late in the game against a tired Ravens secondary and ended up with 139 receiving yards, largely because he’s so good at playing off Mahomes’ improvised moves.
On the other side, Ravens wide receiver Chris Moore had a chance to score on a contested catch in the third quarter. You can’t criticize him for not hauling it in, given how well he was covered by Chiefs cornerback Kendall Fuller. But year after year, it seems the Ravens don’t make enough of those plays to keep up with the best offenses in the NFL.
Safety Eric Weddle took widespread criticism, some of it deserved, some not.
Long before Mahomes found Hill on that 48-yard heave at the end of the game, he hit him on third-and-19 to extend a Kansas City scoring drive late in second quarter. Weddle, the Ravens veteran safety, had a clean shot to wrap up Hill before he reached the first-down line.
As soon as the 33-year-old Weddle failed to make that stop, Twitter lit up with fans ready to shovel dirt on his career. The play tapped into a season’s worth of frustration at his diminished ability to close on ball carriers in the open field.
It’s absolutely fair to note that Weddle has lost a step, maybe two, since he joined the Ravens in 2016. When he’s in space against an electric playmaker such as Hill, he has little chance.
But the Ravens still need Weddle on the field for his brain. Not only does he call the signals for the top defense in the NFL, he remains adept at reading the quarterback’s intentions. That shows up in his Pro Football Focus grades, where he still scans as an above-average player against both the run and the pass.
Vintage Ed Reed isn’t walking through the door, so fans will have to make do.
In the short term, Lamar Jackson’s ball security might be a bigger problem than his uneven throwing.
The Ravens move the ball with Jackson at quarterback. No, he’s not the ideal man in throwing situations. And yes, the team would be better suited for the modern NFL if he’d periodically complete a pass of more than 20 yards. But Kyle Boller he isn’t.
Jackson has undermined his productivity over the past two weeks, however, by putting the ball on the ground.
The Atlanta Falcons hung around in a game the Ravens dominated because they returned a fumble by Jackson for a touchdown. The Chiefs had a golden chance to win in regulation because linebacker Justin Houston stripped the rookie in the waning seconds of the fourth quarter.
The fact that neither mistake led directly to defeat is beside the point.
It seems logical that Jackson’s daring runs would leave him more vulnerable to fumbles than the average quarterback. The player to whom he’s most compared — Michael Vick — fumbled 98 times in 143 career games, a high rate.
On the other hand, Flacco fumbled too much as a young player (39 times in his first four years). So did Tom Brady and Brett Favre. So perhaps it’s more a young-player problem than a running-quarterback problem.
Regardless, the Ravens face a decision at quarterback, with Flacco on track to be ready Sunday against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
The veteran’s superior passing skill is an advantage in the comparison. So is his ability to avoid game-turning mistakes.
The Ravens are better than their competitors for the second wild-card spot, but they might not be in better position.
By point differential, the Ravens are easily the best team competing for the second AFC wild-card spot. According to DVOA, the overall efficiency analytic used by Football Outsiders, they came into Sunday behind the Denver Broncos. But they beat the Broncos soundly and earned a tiebreaker advantage over them.
So why don’t the Ravens feel like clear favorites going into the last three weeks of the season?
Schedule, schedule, schedule.
They exited the weekend tied with the Indianapolis Colts, Tennessee Titans and Miami Dolphins at 7-6 (the Broncos did them a favor by losing, inexplicably, to the pitiable San Francisco 49ers). But none of those teams faces a challenge so daunting as the Ravens’ Dec. 22 trip to play the Los Angeles Chargers.
The Titans, for example, could get to 10-6 by beating three mediocre opponents (frankly, mediocre is giving the cratering Washington Redskins too much credit).
The Colts could do it by beating the Dallas Cowboys at home and the Titans on the road in their season finale.
The wildest scenario could see the Ravens fall short in the wild card but steal the AFC North from the fading Pittsburgh Steelers, who still have to play the New England Patriots and New Orleans Saints.
The Ravens will be favored in home games against the Buccaneers and the frisky Cleveland Browns. But those matchups will be fraught with must-win pressure.
They’ve put themselves in a good position, and they’re playing well. They just haven’t done enough to avoid another tense December.