For the Ravens, it was a deflating end to an emotional season.
In its first home playoff game since 2012, Baltimore was defeated Sunday by the Los Angeles Chargers, 23-17, at M&T Bank Stadium. That quickly, the Ravens' 2018 season is over despite some notable accomplishments.
They reached the playoffs for the first time since 2014 by clinching the AFC North title in Week 17. They finished the regular season at 10-6, as hot as any team in the NFL, winning six of their last seven games to reach the playoffs.
However, the first 50 minutes of Sunday's game was a Ravens nightmare. They struggled offensively, made numerous mistakes and fell behind, 23-3, in the fourth quarter. After a furious rally by the Ravens fell short, they remained proud of their body of work this season but disappointed by Sunday's outcome.
"The togetherness and unity of this team is by far the best I've ever been on, so you wish you could continue on," Ravens Pro Bowl safety Eric Weddle said. "We didn't play good in all three phases. Special teams, they kicked our butt. Offensively, didn't do much for about three quarters, and defensively we could have played better, so hats off to the Chargers. They played an outstanding game and they deserved to win."
It was a particularly tough performance for the Ravens offense led by rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson, the youngest quarterback ever to start an NFL playoff game. After Jackson passed so many tests as a 21-year-old rookie quarterback, his playoff debut became a difficult learning experience.
For much of the game, the Chargers bottled up Jackson and the Baltimore running attack that had been so potent heading into this game. Playing the Ravens for the second time in three weeks, the Chargers stacked the line of scrimmage with fast defensive backs, crashed their defensive ends from outside, and dared Jackson to beat them with his arm instead of his legs.
Jackson was off-target on many throws. He was sacked seven times, often holding the ball too long, leaving himself trapped once he decided to run. Ravens running backs Gus Edwards (23 yards) and Kenneth Dixon (13 yards) were both stuffed, trying to find holes that didn't exist in the Chargers' interior defense.
Jackson came alive with two touchdowns passes in the fourth quarter, and he finished 14-for-29 for 194 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. However, Jackson was just 3-for-9 in the first three quarters and he fumbled three times.
Jackson's electrifying play was a major reason the Ravens made the playoffs. But as he develops as a quarterback, the Ravens will need him to become a more accurate passer, and to correct his fumbling issues. The Ravens dramatically changed their offense after Jackson became the starter in Week 10, and he fumbled 13 times as the starter.
"The ball-handling in an offense like this is the thing," Ravens Head Coach John Harbaugh said. "The truth is, we didn't get enough work at it."
Jackson's last fumble on the Ravens' final possession sealed their doom, coming on a strip-sack by Chargers inside linebacker Kyle Emanuel that was recovered by Melvin Ingram with 19 seconds to play. That ended a furious comeback by the Ravens, who never quit. Jackson finally found a rhythm in the fourth quarter, throwing two touchdown passes to Michael Crabtree. The defense made two consecutive fourth-quarter stops, giving the offense a chance to pull the Ravens closer.
But it was too little, too late. This entire season became an uphill battle for the Ravens after they reached the bye at 4-5, riding a three-game losing streak. They recovered to make the playoffs, but there was no escape from the hole they dug Sunday.
The Ravens had to accept the bitter truth Sunday, that their season was over sooner than planned. They had significant contributions from many young players this season, including rookies like Jackson, Edwards, right tackle Orlando Brown Jr. and tight end Mark Andrews.
The sting of Sunday's loss will take some time to wear off. Some offseason changes are inevitable. But unlike the last three seasons, when they Ravens finished with deep disappointment, there was a strong belief that 2018 had given them something to build on. For now, that would have to be enough.
"It's going to sting, but overall I think we showed a lot this season," tight end Maxx Williams said. "This team showed what kind of heart we have and how much fight we have. We're going to have to process it and have to live with this the whole offseason and come back next year ready to go."