Five thoughts on the Ravens’ 23-17 loss to the Los Angeles Chargers in an AFC Wild Card playoff game Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium:
Well, the Ravens won’t go into the offseason contemplating any wouldas, couldas or shouldas. In their first home playoff game in six years, they were, without question, the second-best team on the field. The Chargers beat them at their own game, dominating with a lights-out defense and a chain-moving offense that controlled the clock. The Ravens’ defense mostly lived up to billing, but for the first time since Lamar Jackson took over at quarterback, the offense had major issues. Mistake-prone and repeatedly beaten at the point of attack, it got nothing going until a late rally, which fell short. Jackson was dismal until those final minutes of his playoff debut, but the Chargers’ stout, speedy defense spawned his ineffectiveness with its interior dominance, which completely threw off the rhythm of the Ravens’ offense. More than a few analysts had the Ravens going farther in the playoffs, so it’s a disappointing ending. But after this game, in which they trailed by 20 points in the fourth quarter, no one can say they were destined for more. Their destiny, it turns out, was to be good enough to win a division title, no small feat. But they have work to do if they want to go deeper into January.
I’m sure the popular narrative will be the bright lights of the playoff stage got to Jackson. Sorry, I’m not buying it. I don’t believe for a second that nerves led him to fumble twice in the first five minutes and three times overall. It’s no secret he has struggled all season with ball security; this was just the latest example of a problem that Ravens Head Coach John Harbaugh identified after the game as “priority No. 1” in the looming offseason. Along the same lines, it wasn’t nerves that sent his passing game into a tailspin; his passing, like his fumbling habit, is where he’s a work in progress, and the issue was exacerbated Sunday by the Chargers’ strong rush, which sacked him seven times and was in his face whenever he dropped back. As for why he was unable to make more plays with his legs, credit the Chargers for stacking the box with defensive backs with the speed to corral him. Jackson said he took no offense at the boos he heard for the first time as a pro. “I played poorly,” he said. But those who booed him didn’t grasp that there wouldn’t have been a playoff game in Baltimore Sunday if not for Jackson.
It needs to be pointed out that all three units, not just the offense, played a role in the Ravens’ demise. The special teams experienced issues in the form of Justin Tucker’s first career playoff miss (from 50 yards), a short Sam Koch punt that set up a Chargers score in the first half, a spate of uninspired kickoff returns by Ty Montgomery and poor coverage on several long Chargers returns. (The special teams did bounce back later with a blocked field goal and partially blocked punt.) And while the defense did play well, limiting the Chargers to one touchdown and 243 offensive yards, the Chargers’ offense still controlled the ball for long stretches, resulting in a sizable edge in possession through three quarters. As for the Ravens’ offense, the No. 1 deciding factor in this game was the dominance of the Chargers’ defensive front on a day when it was without its starting nose tackle and a top tackler. The Ravens have feasted on runs between the tackles since Jackson stepped under center, but Gus Edwards and Kenneth Dixon had nowhere to run between the tackles Sunday, as evidenced by their 36 combined rushing yards on 14 carries. That was the cornerstone of this disappointing defeat.
You can’t say the Ravens went quietly. After trailing by a dozen points at halftime, they made a passel of plays that could have turned things around. They blocked a field goal. They forced and recovered a fumble in Chargers territory. They partially blocked a punt. But they didn’t make up much ground because the offense continued to misfire. As they fell farther behind, Harbaugh said the idea of replacing Jackson with Joe Flacco was discussed. The move never came, and don’t count me among the second-guessers who believe Flacco could have pulled out some miracle rally. Even if he’d come in throwing strikes, I doubt he could have fared as well as Jackson, who suddenly awoke and led the offense on two touchdown drives to make the game interesting in the waning minutes. Flacco, for the record, said as much after the game. “I thought Lamar did a great job of just hanging in there. He gave us a chance at the end,” he said. I see it as the right ending for all involved. It’s Jackson’s team now, and Flacco understands that. To yank the new guy at the first sign of trouble wouldn’t have said much about the new guy.
Short takes: The Ravens not only lost the turnover battle (3-1), they also incurred more penalties than the Chargers. None was bigger than a holding call on tackle Ronnie Stanley that nullified a long Jackson scramble into the red zone in the third quarter when the Ravens were down by nine points. That penalty set back the offense, wrecked the Ravens’ momentum and led to Tucker’s missed field goal attempt. Ouch … The Ravens’ defensive stalwarts included Matthew Judon, who registered five of the team’s eight quarterback hits, and Patrick Onwuasor, who compiled seven tackles, a sack, two quarterback hits and a forced fumble … Harbaugh had never lost a wild-card playoff game until Sunday … The Chargers are now 8-0 this season in games played outside of Los Angeles. They’re also 13-4 overall. The Ravens were eliminated by a very good team.