From the unthinkable jolt of a season-ending loss to great expectations for seasons ahead, here are five things we learned from the Ravens’ 28-12 divisional-round defeat Saturday night to the Tennessee Titans:
This loss was among the sharpest disappointments in Baltimore sports history, because the 2019 Ravens had a chance to be truly great.
One of the most promising seasons in Ravens history ended in a near-silent stadium, with trash blowing in the breeze and purple-clad fans filing solemnly to the exits.
The mood was equally funereal in the losing locker room, where players sat longer than usual before peeling off their uniforms for the final time.
This day was supposed to be a celebration of the NFL’s mightiest team and its most dazzling young performer, Lamar Jackson. Instead, one of the giddiest rides in recent Baltimore sports history was over — abruptly and definitively.
It’s of course foolish to compare anything that happens in professional sports to a death. But the silence after a playoff loss is sharp and eerie. So many months of excruciating physical effort and the hopes of so many people — players, coaches and fans — build to three hours on one night. And when those three hours don’t go your way, the crash feels mighty. Thoughts of starting over next season feel far off and bereft of comfort.
In his 13th season, Ravens guard Marshal Yanda has lived through more endings than most, and he acknowledged this was among the most painful. “How hot we ended the season, a 12-game streak, to have them come in our house and beat us at home, that’s tough,” he said.
The 2019 Ravens could have gone down as a truly great team. They won their last 12 regular-season games, racked up a historic margin of victory, set offensive records and sent nearly a quarter of their roster to the Pro Bowl. But they left the field at M&T Bank Stadium knowing they will not be remembered that way, because endings are everything in professional sports. Ask the 1968 Colts, who went 13-1 only to lose to Joe Namath and the New York Jets in Super Bowl III.
“I felt like this was the best football team that it could be this year,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “With the group that we had, we made the most of us, becoming the best football team we could be. We just weren’t that today, and that’s the disappointing thing.”
Harbaugh knew as well as anyone that his team could be something special, that it had coalesced around Jackson with a rare communal spirit and week-to-week drive.
All that fell apart for technical reasons that the Ravens had yet to process in the moments immediately after the game. But the details felt small compared with the stark reality of the close.
“This is pro football,” Harbaugh said. “In the end, there’s only one team that gets to be the one true champion, and that’s not going to be us this year. So that’s where we’re at.”
For all his brilliance, Lamar Jackson is going to spend the next year living with uncomfortable questions.
Jackson was furious with himself after the Ravens lost to the Los Angeles Chargers in the wild-card round last season. The home fans booed him that day as he fumbled three times, threw an interception and could not find his footing until the fourth quarter, when the game was too far out of reach.
But those who know Jackson best often talk about how he thrives on negativity. He returned to his hometown of Pompano Beach, Florida, last winter, determined to erase the technical deficiencies that had undermined him in the Chargers game.
We saw the results as he carried the Ravens to the best regular-season record in the league. But Jackson knows better than anyone else that the finish determines how an NFL season will be remembered. He talked often about how none of his individual achievements would matter if the story did not end in the Super Bowl.
His words proved terribly prophetic. Jackson will likely win Most Valuable Player honors the day before the Super Bowl. But the honor will feel hollower than it should because he won’t play in the only game that matters to him. Instead, he’ll spend another offseason chewing over a bitter playoff defeat in which he did not play up to his standards, in which he completed just 31 of 59 passes and turned the ball over three times.
We can’t pin the Ravens’ offensive woes on one man. Jackson’s first interception bounced off the hands of his most certain target, tight end Mark Andrews.
Wide receiver Seth Roberts dropped a beautifully thrown touch pass that would have given the Ravens a first down in the second quarter.
The Ravens offensive line lost the battle up front.
But with majestic talent comes a disproportionate burden. And Jackson’s playoff disappointments will be the narrative around the Ravens until he wins a playoff game. He will undoubtedly come back to play brilliantly next season. He’ll unleash fakes and win games that have us buzzing. But he won’t have a chance to change the essential story until this time next year.
Teammates love him, of course, and don’t want to hear him run down based on one off night. “You’re not going to depict a guy from one game,” Yanda said. “You take his entire body of work … and the kid played his ass off. That’s where I stand on that.”
It does not matter whether it’s fair, though. This is the reality Jackson will live with.
“I don’t really care about what they say,” he said. “This is my second year in the league. Many people aren’t able to bring it to the playoffs. I’ve got a great team with me. I don’t really worry about what people say. We’re just going to keep it going.”
The Ravens let the Titans seize the initiative and never recovered.
It all started well enough for the Ravens. They stopped the Titans on the first drive of the game and were rolling down the field in typical fashion when a pass from Jackson, slightly high, bounced off Andrews’ normally reliable hands and into the arms of Titans safety Kevin Byard.
Eight plays later, the Titans made the Ravens pay for that mistake with the game’s first touchdown, a brilliant catch in the corner of the end zone by tight end Jonnu Smith.
On the Ravens’ next drive, Titans linebacker David Long Jr. submarined in to stuff Jackson on fourth down. Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill immediately followed with a 45-yard touchdown strike to Kalif Raymond to put Tennessee up two scores.
Tannehill completed just seven passes for 88 yards all day. But that one strike, off Tennessee’s vaunted play action, put the Ravens in a hole from which they would never recover. Give credit to the Titans, who went for the jugular with an aggressive call when the home favorite was reeling.
The early scores pushed the Ravens away from their preferred style of play. Jackson was never meant to throw 59 times. Mark Ingram II (who played through a calf injury) and Gus Edwards were supposed to be more balanced partners in the game plan.
The Ravens had their chances after falling behind. They went into halftime down eight points and drove to the Titans’ 18-yard line to start the second half. But Tennessee again stopped Jackson on fourth down and again followed up with an immediate touchdown drive, this time thanks to a 66-yard ramble and a nifty jump pass by all-world running back Derrick Henry.
The Titans jumped the Ravens at the start of each half, a perfect formula for piercing the aura of dominance around a 14-2 team. The Ravens ended up with 530 total yards and 29 first downs to the Titans’ 300 yards and 15 first downs. But Tennessee seized the most important moments of the game and did not look back.
For the second straight year, the Ravens lost a playoff game at the line of scrimmage.
When the Chargers came to Baltimore and won last January, we spent much of the aftermath talking about Jackson’s sloppy play and the swarms of quick defensive backs he faced. But the real story of that game was the way the Chargers’ defensive front whipped the Ravens’ offensive line.
No one expected a repeat this year. The Ravens came in with the most productive rushing offense in NFL history and a stellar offensive line led by Pro Bowl selections Ronnie Stanley and Yanda.
But the Titans, without a single Pro Bowl selection on their front seven, made life miserable for them from the start. They smothered inside running lanes, holding Ingram and Edwards to a combined 42 yards on nine carries. They pressured Jackson without having to blitz on every snap and stuffed him on two fourth-down runs. Defensive tackle Jurrell Casey was particularly dominant with four tackles, two sacks and a forced fumble.
The Ravens had struggled to move the ball consistently against elite defensive fronts during the season, particularly in close wins over the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 5 and the San Francisco 49ers in Week 13. Tennessee’s run defense was very good all year, holding opponents to 4 yards per carry, seventh best in the league. Only two opponents had rushed for more than 150 yards against the Titans.
It was nonetheless stunning to watch how little push the Ravens managed up front.
“The trenches on both sides, they played extremely well,” Harbaugh said. “That was the biggest difference.”
The Ravens still have many reasons to be excited about their future.
This loss will cast a pall over the next few months but should not rock the Ravens’ faith in where they’re headed.
They really were an excellent all-around team, with an innovative offense built around the league’s most exciting player, an elite secondary that got better as the year went on and a coaching staff that prepared them to win every week.
Those elements will remain in place, though general manager Eric DeCosta will need to answer some roster questions, especially on the defensive side.
Jackson will be the centerpiece for years to come, and as a franchise quarterback on a rookie contract, he’s the most valuable building block a team could have. Almost every important player from the NFL’s top scoring offense will return, though Yanda could retire with a year left on his contract (he was not ready to address that possibility after the game).
On defense, the Ravens will return All-Pro cornerbacks Marcus Peters and Marlon Humphrey and safeties Earl Thomas III and Chuck Clark. But DeCosta will look to invigorate a pass rush that failed to produce consistently. That process will start with a difficult decision on free-agent edge rusher Matthew Judon, who made his first Pro Bowl this season and could command a lucrative deal on the open market. The Ravens could also lose defensive tackle Michael Pierce and some of their veteran depth in the secondary (though don’t be surprised if they bring cornerback Jimmy Smith back on a cheaper deal).
Their coaching staff under Harbaugh will likely remain stable.
So much went right for the 2019 Ravens that it’s hard to imagine Harbaugh and the front office approaching the offseason with a reform agenda. The players felt shaken for the moment on Saturday but not forever.
“We’re a young team, especially on our offense,” Jackson said. “We’re going to get better. We only can get better. It’s only up from here.”