Cornerback Marcus Peters was one of the first Ravens to head to his locker late Sunday morning, pack up his belongings and acknowledge that the end had well and truly come.
“It was fun, man, while it lasted,” he said before a legion of cameras and microphones, but the trouble was that this season was supposed to extend into next weekend, perhaps even into February. The 14-2 Ravens had won 12 straight games, accelerating with every victory into historical greatness, and the Tennessee Titans would be a speed bump.
But less than 12 hours after a stunning 28-12 loss Saturday in the AFC divisional round at M&T Bank Stadium, Ravens players still couldn’t believe they’d run into a wall. Their defeat was tied for the second largest by a double-digit favorite in the postseason in the Super Bowl era, according to ESPN Stats & Info. For much of a forgettable night, the Ravens were a No. 1 seed in title only.
There was only so much John Harbaugh could say afterward. Entering Saturday night, his team had ranked as one of the NFL’s most efficient ever. The Ravens were Super Bowl favorites. In Lamar Jackson, they had the presumptive Most Valuable Player. The team was well rested and back at home. What could Harbaugh really add in his postmortem?
“I don’t really know the vibe of it,” cornerback Marlon Humphrey said. “You feel like you’ve got to say something in those meetings, so Coach gets up there and says whatever.”
Defensive back Brandon Carr, who’s never played in a conference championship game, joked that he’s “heard about 12 of these messages [for] 12 years straight.” Harbaugh’s message, he said, hit familiar beats: Take care of yourself and ignore the noise. Returning players would need to continue to build together. Free agents would need to figure out their future.
Every offseason brings about change, and the Ravens will not be immune. Outside linebacker Matthew Judon, a pending free agent, talked after Saturday’s loss as if his time with the Ravens were a thing of the past, though he acknowledged he still has to meet with Ravens officials about a potentially lucrative contract extension. Defensive tackle Michael Pierce’s value on the open market could also be too rich for the Ravens’ blood.
Cornerback Jimmy Smith, inside linebacker Josh Bynes, defensive tackle Domata Peko Sr., wide receiver Seth Roberts, defensive lineman Jihad Ward, outside linebacker Pernell McPhee and defensive back-linebacker Anthony Levine Sr. will also hit free agency, among others. Center Matt Skura is a restricted free agent. Several players, most notably safety Tony Jefferson, could be salary cap casualties.
“Just the run that we’ve been on, the bond we have with this city, it was tremendous, and I would love to see that continue whether I’m here or not,” Pierce said. “The way that we’ve all grown together from the fourth week of the season until now — this is a brotherhood, and we love each other on and off the football field. I know that’s hard for people to grip that’s not in this realm of life. It’s really a brotherhood. I’ll continue to stay in the group chat wherever I go.”
While free agency and the NFL draft will transform the Ravens’ depth chart, their most important pillars should remain in place. Both offensive coordinator Greg Roman and defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale, the subjects of head coaching interest across the NFL for the past few weeks, will be back for another season with Harbaugh, himself a favorite for Coach of the Year honors.
With a $2.6 million cap hit in 2020, Jackson will again be one of the league’s most valuable pieces. An offense that led the NFL in scoring won’t lose much. While the future of Pro Bowl guard Marshal Yanda is uncertain, the Ravens offense will return at least three Pro Bowl selections alongside Jackson: left tackle Ronnie Stanley, tight end Mark Andrews and running back Mark Ingram II. A healthy offseason for 2019 first-round pick Marquise “Hollywood” Brown should also boost the wide receiver’s development.
“There’s a lot to look forward to,” said Andrews, who called the 2019 Ravens “the best team” he’d ever played on. “And obviously, it’s hard to do that right now. But there’s so much coming back ... and we have all the pieces. This is a young group. The sky’s really the limit. I’m excited to get back here and start working again, to be honest with you. It sucks to be in this position, but we’ve got the guys that are hungry and we’ve got the will to prove everyone wrong.”
The Ravens won’t play another meaningful game until September, and they will hear a lot in these next eight months: about how Jackson can’t win in the postseason, about what has kept Harbaugh’s recent teams from playoff success, about why the offense needs to evolve into something it was not.
After Saturday’s loss, Humphrey said, the 2019 Ravens ended. But he knew that they would be judged by how they looked Saturday, and he had no reservations Sunday about applying an unflattering label. The Ravens had choked, he reiterated.
“You are what you show on paper and you are what you show on the field,” Humphrey said. “That’s what we’ve shown on the field.”