Was rust to blame for the Ravens' early playoff exit?
In short, who the heck knows? There were a ton of factors that contributed.
"You could [say that]. It's hard to know the cost of that," Head Coach John Harbaugh said. "We didn't play well. Whether that's rusty, or what that means exactly, it's kind of a cliché in all honesty."
But one thing is for sure. If given another chance to rest the starters in Week 17, Harbaugh says he would probably do it differently.
Harbaugh did the research on outcomes when teams rested their starters before the playoffs versus when they didn't. In some cases, they won their next game and went on to win the Super Bowl. In others, they lost their first game. Harbaugh said the history showed it was about 50/50.
So Harbaugh "leaned on" a strategy similar to what he used back in 2012, when the Ravens had the division crown locked up and rested starters in Week 17 versus the Bengals. Joe Flacco started, but remained in for just two series before Tyrod Taylor took over for the remainder of a 23-17 loss.
Baltimore then hosted the wild-card round against the Indianapolis Colts, Flacco remained hot and they went on to win Super Bowl XLVII.
The opposite happened this season, as Lamar Jackson and other select starters – Marshal Yanda, Ronnie Stanley, Mark Ingram II, Mark Andrews, Brandon Williams, Earl Thomas III and Jimmy Smith – didn't play. Considering the first-round bye, it meant about three weeks without game action.
The Ravens then went out and played their worst game of the year in the 28-12 loss to Tennessee.
"Going forward – after this – I might go the other way," Harbaugh said. "Next year if we're God willing in the same situation, I might go the other way, in all honesty. When that comes up and you're blasting me for risking our guys [getting injured], I won't second-guess it then either."
Second-guessing Harbaugh's decision this year doesn't make much sense. Jackson (flu), Ingram (calf) and Andrews (ankle) wouldn't have played anyway in Week 17.
That leaves Yanda, Stanley, Williams, Thomas and Smith. Did the Ravens lose because of any of those single players? Of course not.
There were many factors that contributed to Baltimore's 28-12 stunner, and lapses by players who did play in the regular-season finale. The Ravens' slow start – featuring an interception on their opening offensive drive, fourth-and-1 failure, long touchdown pass allowed and dropped potential touchdown pass – had a lot to do with it. But Baltimore was beaten in the second half, too.
Harbaugh boiled it down to not winning critical downs. The Ravens went 0-for-4 on fourth down, didn't convert in the red zone and turned the ball over three times. The Titans did the opposite.
For the second straight year, the Ravens didn't play nearly up to their potential in their opening playoff game. Why? They'll go about trying to find out.
"We didn't play well. That's the biggest thing," Harbaugh said. "If we would have gotten in these games and played really well, played our kind of football, not turned the ball over and played winning football, then you could kind of say, 'OK, well that's just football.' When you don't play the way we played leading into those games, that's one that I think you have to look at and try to figure that out."