On the journey to winning a Super Bowl, overcoming major disappointment is usually part of the process.
The Ravens' resolve is being tested again. They've made the postseason for three straight years, with a young and talented nucleus led by quarterback Lamar Jackson.
But they've been eliminated three straight years without reaching the AFC Championship, and Saturday night's 17-3 defeat to the Buffalo Bills will raise more questions about when, or if, this core group of Ravens will reach their ultimate goal.
One of the major takeaways from Saturday's loss was that Baltimore scored just three points, its lowest point total of the season. In last year's playoff loss to Tennessee, Baltimore scored just 12 points, and in 2018, the Ravens were shut out in the first half during a 23-17 playoff loss to the Los Angeles Chargers.
Three times during the postseason, the Ravens' offense has been bottled up during a playoff defeat, and wide receiver Willie Snead IV said Buffalo didn't show any defensive wrinkles the Ravens weren't expecting.
"They weren't really doing anything special; they were just playing top-down coverage, a lot of Cover-4, a lot of zone," Snead said. "They just eliminated the run, and they tried to make us one-dimensional in the passing game, and we just didn't take advantage of what they were giving us."
In John Harbaugh, the Ravens have a head coach who has persevered through playoff disappointment before. In each of his first five seasons in Baltimore, the Ravens made the playoffs, which is not easy to do in the NFL. But it took until Harbaugh's fifth season, in 2012, for the Ravens to break through and win their most recent Super Bowl.
There were some crushing playoff defeats during Harbaugh's first four seasons, but the Ravens' belief was never broken. They kept making the playoffs, they kept knocking on the door, and eventually they won football's ultimate prize.
However, waiting at least another year is tougher for veterans like Calais Campbell, who was thrilled to join a contender when he was traded to the Ravens. Campbell loved being part of a team that was clear from Day 1 about its objective to win a Super Bowl. But after 13 seasons, Campbell knows every opportunity is precious and he doesn't want to keep waiting for a ring.
"To me, it's only one team happy at the end of the year," Campbell said. "Everyone else is frustrated, mad, and is going to put their heads down and grind and try to be a champion. This season, we fought through a lot. We had a very good bond given the circumstances. I'm very proud of my teammates. But at the same time, it just wasn't good enough for us – our standard to what we want. It is what it is, but we just have to put our heads down, go back to work and try to do it again next year."
Pro Bowl cornerback Marlon Humphrey believes Baltimore has the right group of players to make that happen again. He said that as he sat on the sideline near the end of the game, he said to a teammate that this year's loss didn't feel as bad as last year's to the Titans, when the Ravens were one-and-done after a 14-2 regular season.
To get to the divisional round is something to look at in the right direction," Humphrey said. "Football is just so crazy, a couple of plays can make a big difference. Two years in the divisional round, one step away from the AFC (championship game), I think we've got a lot we can build on. I know we've got a lot of guys under contract who will be back with us next year. I know we've got the quarterback, the guy we need. That's a big key piece. We've got that, and we can build off some pieces around that."
The Ravens are averaging almost 12 wins over the past three regular seasons (35-13). Many of their key players are just 25 years old or younger, like Jackson, Humphrey, Mark Andrews, Orlando Brown Jr., J.K. Dobbins, Patrick Queen, Chuck Clark, Gus Edwards, Marquise Brown, Tyus Bowser, DeShon Elliott and Justin Madubuike.
Every offseason presents difficult personnel decisions, and the Ravens have three outside linebackers who are eligible to become unrestricted free agents – Matthew Judon, Yannick Ngakoue and Bowser. However, the Ravens are going to be a talented squad again, so Humphrey isn't worried about the Ravens having what it takes to make another run at a championship next season.
"As far as what we need going forward, if I knew the answer to that I'd be getting paid a lot of money, and I'd be a GM and a player," Humphrey said. "I usually let those decisions be up to (General Manager Eric) DeCosta. I know one thing, I trust in him and (Executive Vice President) Ozzie (Newsome) and all the guys we've got. No matter what time of the year, no matter how the season's going, they're always looking at different guys that can help us win football games. I know we've got a lot of guys ready to go that are still hungry."
There's a different feeling heading to this offseason than last year, when the Ravens suffered a shocking loss to the Titans. The narrative about their inability to win a playoff game with Jackson has been silenced.
The Ravens showed resiliency to make the playoffs, overcoming a COVID-19 outbreak and a three-game losing streak that left them 6-5. Baltimore responded by winning six straight games before Saturday night. However, their 2020 season is now over, and the Ravens will have to start from scratch next season. Campbell plans to make sure the Ravens have the resolve to make it back to the playoffs, to give themselves another chance at postseason glory.
"I try to keep the young guys encouraged and understanding that you don't get to start back here next year," Campbell said. "You've got to go back and earn it. And we did a good job with that this year. I feel like the team had so much success last year. And a lot of times, the next year, you just fall off – you don't get there."
The Ravens went on a late-season run to get back into the playoffs, but they had to play two tough teams on the road, and would have had to go to Kansas City even if they beat the Bills. Multiple Ravens said Sunday that the crowd noise at Bills Stadium played a role in the loss. Campbell said he wants to see the Ravens get back to hosting playoff games.
"I think next year, we're going to try to find a way to win our division, and to get home playoff games. I think that would be huge," Campbell said.
"This team – we're close, we're real close. Today, with everything going against us, we still had a chance. It's just the way it is. But I think this team is very close, and we've just got to earn the right. In this offseason, it's going to be hard, it's going to burn a little bit, and it should. Hopefully, it'll push us to work as hard as we have ever worked before, and we come back and find a way to win this next year."