On the play that ended all the talk, Lamar Jackson had an audience. The Ravens quarterback was in the open field, high-stepping like Deion Sanders, one strut closer to a breakthrough afternoon in Nashville, and no one seemed more interested in what came next than the guys on the sideline.
Cornerback Marcus Peters, who’d ended the Tennessee Titans’ final drive with an interception, was stalking the 33-yard run like a lion, his smack talk spitting out like a machine gun. Defensive end Jihad Ward and outside linebacker Pernell McPhee, who’d helped anchor a herculean run defense, crouched in excitement, as if they might leap back onto the field themselves. When Jackson finally got down with about 100 seconds left in a 20-13 win, springing backward with one final can’t-touch-this move, defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale pumped his fist. The game was theirs.
It was one they had to have. The days before their AFC wild-card-round game had offered a preview of an uncomfortable offseason — a chorus of questions about Jackson’s big-game chops, about the run defense’s Derrick Henry Problem, about coach John Harbaugh’s playoff record. The Ravens had won 35 regular-season games and two AFC North titles, had watched Jackson earn an NFL Most Valuable Player Award, and for what?
This, they knew, was a day to change the narrative. And in a fast-moving, hard-charging, momentum-swinging rematch of one of the Ravens’ most painful losses in franchise history — almost exactly a year to the day it happened — they emerged with what Harbaugh called “maybe the best win I’ve ever been associated with.”
“It feels good,” said Jackson, who’d acknowledged the pressure of entering the playoffs with an 0-2 record, even if he never owned up to feeling it. “I knew we had the capability of doing that. But it’s always going to be naysayers, no matter what. So it’s just one game at a time. I appreciate the win. Hard-fought team victory. They played great as well. … But I’m grateful for the win.”
The fifth-seeded Ravens had to wait until late Sunday night to learn where they’d go next. With the sixth-seeded Cleveland Browns’ upset of the third-seeded Pittsburgh Steelers, the Ravens will go back to Buffalo for the second straight year, where the second-seeded Bills await. Kickoff at Bills Stadium on Saturday is scheduled for 8:15, and the game will be broadcast on NBC.
The Ravens had long expected to get back to the divisional round, where Tennessee ended their record-breaking campaign last year. But in a season fraught with unexpected developments, from the sport’s worst coronavirus outbreak to Jackson’s hobbled heroism in Cleveland, it was only fitting that the Ravens took an off-the-beaten path to survival. Where others saw deja vu, the team found renewal.
The Ravens hadn’t won a playoff game since 2014. They hadn’t come back from a double-digit deficit since 2016. They hadn’t beaten Tennessee as 10-point favorites almost a year ago or as touchdown favorites in Week 11. Facing a 10-0 first-quarter deficit and a roaring crowd of 14,000-plus, the Ravens scored 20 of the next 23 points, shut down the NFL’s top running back and turned the Titans’ midfield logo into a farewell photo op.
“It’s no fun losing that first round,” said cornerback Marlon Humphrey, who celebrated Peters’ pick with a slide just inside the 50-yard line. “You get so hot to get in the playoffs and then you lose the first one, it’s never very fun. But just from the start of the week, guys just had a different approach: ‘We’re not going home this week.’ ...
“It seemed special just because it was the Titans. They had our number a couple of times, and I felt like we owed them one. I felt like they knew that as well, and it turned out in our favor.”
The Ravens opened the game as if they were staging a re-creation of their Jan. 11, 2020, loss in Baltimore. On a run-run-pass first drive, they gained 5 yards and punted. On their second drive, Jackson missed wide receiver Miles Boykin badly on a deep shot, and cornerback Malcolm Butler came up with Tennessee’s fourth interception in its past nine quarters against the Ravens.
It was only the first quarter, and the game was already slipping away. Pro Bowl wide receiver A.J. Brown, whose try-to-stop-me touchdown in Week 11 had marked a low point in the Ravens’ midseason swoon, was giving Humphrey trouble. A 10-yard touchdown pass from Ryan Tannehill (18-for-26 for 165 yards) gave the AFC South champions a 7-0 lead. Four minutes later, a 45-yard field goal by Stephen Gostkowski pushed it to 10.
The Ravens needed Jackson to bring them back. In their stunning divisional-round playoff loss, he’d piled up over 500 yards of total offense but scored just one touchdown, the bad (three turnovers) outweighing the good. In a team-wide videoconference Saturday night, Humphrey said Jackson had spoken up, a rarity for the lead-by-example star. At that moment, Humphrey said, he knew the Ravens were in good hands. He knew they were going to win.
As Jackson dropped back on third-and-9 late in the second quarter, trailing 10-3, it didn’t look good. But then Jackson saw a crease up the middle and took off. His next 48 yards amounted to “the best run I’ve ever seen by a quarterback,” Harbaugh said, even better than Jackson’s iconic touchdown against the Cincinnati Bengals last season.
Jackson slipped by the linemen trying to contain him, then the safety trying to trip him, and finally the cornerbacks trying to track him down. His celebration was punctuated with Jackson, or maybe a teammate, wondering aloud: “The [expletive] y’all talking about?”
“I wasn’t really worried about [the criticism],” said Jackson, who rushed 16 times for 136 yards and finished 17-for-24 for 179 passing yards against a normally porous Tennessee defense. “It’s just my third year in the league. I don’t really care what people say.”
His teammates did, and so they followed their leader, right down to their own redemptive arcs.
A Ravens offensive line that had given up four first-half sacks and struggled against atypical Titans fronts cleared a path for running back J.K. Dobbins on a go-ahead third-quarter touchdown run.
Wide receiver Marquise “Hollywood” Brown, who just over two months ago had tweeted out his frustrations with his role on offense, finished with seven catches on nine targets for 109 yards, both game highs.
Justin Tucker, who’d missed a 52-yard field goal early in the fourth quarter, ending a streak of 48 consecutive makes in the fourth quarter or overtime, came back the next drive to nail a 51-yarder that extended the Ravens’ lead to 20-13.
But no effort was more impressive, more defining, than that of the Ravens’ run defense. Defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale had called Henry, the NFL’s first 2,000-yard rusher since 2012, “the greatest challenge every play.” In the Ravens’ two losses to Tennessee, they’d watched Henry run through, around and over them, a trail of broken dreams in his wake.
But on Sunday, they had a plan, they had the personnel, and they had a goal: Hold Henry to 90 yards. With defensive end Calais Campbell and defensive tackle Brandon Williams finally ready, with their edge defenders funneling everything inside, the Ravens held Henry to 18 carries for 40 yards — and no first downs. His longest run went for 8 yards.
“He’s the hardest running back I’ve ever had to tackle,” defensive end Derek Wolfe said. “He’ll run you over. I’ve got a ton of respect for him. So for us to accomplish that kind of goal against a back like that, who just got 2,000 yards rushing, that’s a testament to show you what kinds of guys we have up front, what kinds of guys we have on this defense, and what kinds of guys we have on this team.”
It’s a team determined to do as much as it can, for as long as it can, and to do it together. When Peters wanted to celebrate his late pick, the defense assembled en masse on the Titans logo, some scuffing up the playing surface, a small act of revenge coming almost a year after Tennessee had first chosen the Ravens logo for a pregame huddle.
When the Ravens’ offensive line sprung Jackson for his breakaway run in the fourth quarter, there was the defense, just yards away on the sideline, hyping him up. And when Jackson finally took a knee, racing off the field, unwilling to shake hands with the “disrespectful” Titans or watch the clock hit zero, he looked back. It must have seemed like the whole team was behind him.
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