As the Ravens secured the NFL’s best record at 14-2 and earned the AFC’s No. 1 seed, they faced a Week 17 game against the Pittsburgh Steelers that had no bearing on their postseason standing.
Many questioned whether coach John Harbaugh should rest his starters, most notably star quarterback Lamar Jackson, and risk a slow start in the team’s first playoff game three weeks away. Harbaugh opted to bench his key starters, some healthy and some with nagging injuries.
As Saturday night’s divisional-round game against the sixth-seeded Tennessee Titans approached, the question resurfaced. Players and coaches shot down the notion that the layoff would affect their performance.
But after Saturday night’s 28-12 upset loss, the rest-or-rust conundrum reared its ugly head for a Ravens team that fell behind and couldn’t mount a comeback.
"They just did a great job. We've just to try harder and get it next time and convert it." said Lamar Jackson when asked how long this loss with stick with him.
“I don’t know. I don’t have the answer,” Harbaugh said when asked if the layoff played a role in his team’s slow start. “It’s unanswerable. Our guys practiced really hard and did the best they could, but we didn’t play a sharp football game, for sure. What should you attribute that to? I guess you can theorize a lot of different things.”
The question likely won’t ever receive a definitive answer, but a Ravens team that outpaced the entire league in first-quarter and first-half points was beaten at its own game Saturday night.
After the Ravens defense forced a punt on the Titans’ first possession, giving the Ravens offense the ball at their 20, Jackson threw just his seventh interception of the season. His pass went off the hands of tight end Mark Andrews and into the arms of safety Kevin Byard, who, after an unnecessary roughness penalty on Jackson, brought the ball to the Ravens 35.
Eight plays later, tight end Jonnu Smith hauled in a one-handed touchdown catch over defensive back Brandon Carr, giving Tennessee the first score.
The early lead played right into the hands of the Titans, who were able to stick with their formula of feeding rushing champion Derrick Henry and exploiting the Ravens’ aggressiveness with play-action passes.
Meanwhile, the Ravens’ first three offensive possessions resulted in an interception, a turnover on downs and a punt.
At the end of the first quarter, the Ravens trailed 7-0. The last time the team had trailed at the end of the first quarter was Week 4 against the Cleveland Browns, its last regular-season loss before reeling off a franchise-best 12 straight victories.
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“It’s huge,” quarterback Ryan Tannehill said of Tennessee’s fast start. “We talked about it all week. They’ve outscored a lot of opponents. ... I don’t know exactly by how much, but it was a lot to a little. We knew coming in that was going to be a critical point in the game for us. ... To get out early, score points and move the ball and get some stops. We knew we had to do that, and we did.”
Before the Ravens knew it, they were facing a big deficit. The team failed to score a touchdown in the first half and entered halftime down 14-6. The 22-point deficit they faced midway through the third quarter was tied for their largest of the season, dating to Week 4.
On Nov. 25, the Ravens scored 28 first-half points against the Los Angeles Rams, then used their record-setting rushing attack to coast to a 45-6 win on “Monday Night Football.”
Days after the victory, wide receiver Willie Snead IV was asked if he sensed a point when the league’s top-scoring offense began to break an opposing defense’s will. Snead remarked that the team’s bruising running approach usually became too much for a defense to handle in the third quarter.
By that time in Saturday night’s shocking loss, the roles had been reversed. The Ravens had all but abandoned their running game — save for a few last-ditch-effort scrambles from Jackson — while Henry steamrolled the Ravens defense for 195 rushing yards, the most the team has allowed to one runner all season.
“I felt like we [were] too excited,” said Jackson, who finished with a career-high 59 pass attempts. “We wanted to score points, like right away, as soon as they scored. But we just got out of our element a little too fast, you know, trying to beat them to the punch. We were slow today a little bit.”