A memorable season for the Ravens ended two weeks sooner than they expected.
Falling a victory short of reaching the Super Bowl, Baltimore was defeated by the defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs, 17-10, at M&T Bank Stadium in the AFC Championship.
The Ravens hosted a conference championship for the first time in franchise history and the atmosphere was electric. Many of the greatest players in team history were in the house including Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Jonathan Ogden, Terrell Suggs and Anquan Boldin.
They were all hoping that the 2023 Ravens could reach the mountaintop – a trip to the Super Bowl and a chance to play for the Lombardi Trophy. But while the Ravens were the AFC's best team in the regular season (13-4), the Chiefs have peaked in the postseason, playing like a team that has reached six straight conference championship games.
Kansas City will have a chance to win back-to-back Super Bowls led by future Hall of Famers Head Coach Andy Reid, quarterback Patrick Mahomes and tight end Travis Kelce. The Ravens will have a long offseason to reflect on what could've been.
Here are my thoughts on a game that's going to sting the Ravens for a while:
Too Many Turnovers, Too Many Penalties
The Ravens had three turnovers, including two in the red zone, and committed eight penalties for 95 yards. That's not a winning formula against a team as experienced as the Chiefs, who had no turnovers and just three penalties for 30 yards.
Baltimore simply made too many mistakes to sustain momentum, and after falling behind 17-7 at halftime, the urgency to catch up in the second half made every miscue more costly.
It appeared the Ravens were about to score a touchdown to pull within three points on the first play of the fourth quarter. But rookie wide receiver Zay Flowers, who was the Ravens' biggest playmaker (five catches, 115 yards), also made a crucial mistake. After catching a pass from Jackson, Flowers fumbled just inches short of the goal lines as he reached out the football trying to break the plane of the end zone. The ball was stripped by Kansas City defensive back L'Jarius Snead and recovered by teammate Trent McDuffie.
Instead of getting seven points or three points and turning momentum in their favor, the Ravens came up empty and the Chiefs milked more time off the clock. After the Ravens drove into Kansas City territory again on their next possession, Lamar Jackson forced a throw into triple coverage that was intended for Isaiah Likely. The underthrown pass was picked off by Deon Bush, and the Ravens had another costly empty trip.
Justin Tucker's 43-yard field goal with 2:38 left pulled the Ravens to within three, but they never got the ball again. Mahomes' 32-yard completion to Marquez Valdes-Scantling was the final dagger that allowed Kansas City to run out the clock.
Jackson, who was strip sacked in the first half, felt the turnovers were the difference.
"You can't turn the ball over," Jackson said. "When we get in that red zone…we've got to finish. We didn't do a good job of finishing. They played the game basically perfect."
Both Defenses Were Championship Caliber
Both teams received superb defensive efforts.
Give the Chiefs credit for bottling up a potent Baltimore offense led by Jackson (20 for 37, 272 yards, one touchdown, one interception), who is expected to be named the league's valuable player for the second time of his career.
But in this game, the Chiefs kept Jackson from dominating the way he did against the Texans in the divisional round. Harbaugh credited the game plan of Chiefs Defensive Coordinator Steve Spagnuolo.
Baltimore's only touchdown came in the first quarter when Flowers to got behind Kansas City's defense after Jackson adlibbed, ducking under a potential sack by escaping the grasp of Leo Chanel. Jackson then dropped a dime to Flowers for a 32-yard touchdown for Baltimore's only score.
But for most of the game, Jackson had trouble finding open receivers no matter how long he held it.
Baltimore's rushing attack, which led the NFL in rushing during the regular season, was held to 81 yards rushing, and most of that was done by Jackson (eight carries, 54 yards). Running backs Gus Edwards (20 yards) and Justice Hill (three yards) only got three carries apiece and had little chance to have an impact on the game.
There will be plenty of time for the Ravens to analyze what went wrong offensively. However, 10 points against the Chiefs will rarely be enough to win.
"We scored once, that's not like us," Jackson said. "We've got to put points on the board, that's our job."
Baltimore's defense was also excellent led by two All-Pros, linebacker Roquan Smith (16 tackles) and safety Kyle Hamilton (11 tackles), who became an absolute stud in his second season.
After the Chiefs confidently marched for two touchdowns on their first two possessions, they only scored three points the rest of the way. Mahomes and Kelce (11 catches, 116 yards) made a magnificent play to connect on the Chiefs' first touchdown, despite blanket coverage by Hamilton.
But the Ravens made defensive adjustments, never lost belief they could stop the Chiefs, and kept Baltimore in the game. The pain in Smith's voice was obvious after the game, but the Ravens' defense led the league in sacks, scoring average and takeaways this year and was special again in defeat.
"I have an immense amount of respect for every single guy that stepped on the field with me this year on the defensive side of the ball," Smith said. "Just knowing how close we were to what we really wanted … it just has to add more fuel to you. It definitely sucks. It hurts."
Lamar Jackson Sounds Determined to Bounce Back
Jackson talked about winning a Super Bowl all season and will have to wait at least another season. However, the Ravens' franchise quarterback said he wouldn't allow this postseason defeat to discourage him moving forward.
"I'm very proud of my team," Jackson said. "We made it all the way to this point. One game away from the Super Bowl, we fell short. Nobody thought we were going to be in this position. But we were. Next time we've just got to finish."
"When you have a player like Lamar, 30 years from now we'll speak of Lamar Jackson's name," wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. said. "The greats have all been through tough times. I don't think this will going to stop him from wanting to get to his ultimate goal. If anything, he's going to work even harder. I just felt like it was his time, but sometimes things happen in life and it doesn't go the way you planned. It's about what you do from here."
Flowers Will Learn From His First Conference Championship
The potential for Flowers to be an explosive playmaker in Baltimore's offense for years to come is obvious. After catching 77 passes for 858 yards and five touchdowns during the regular season, Flowers continued to excel in the postseason but his fumble near the goal line was a critical turning point in the game.
Flowers thought he had crossed the plane of the goal line before fumbling, but replays showed he had not.
"Yes, I thought I did, honestly, but I'll learn from my mistakes," Flowers said. "This is a tough one, so we have to work towards next year."
Teammates such as Beckham rallied around Flowers after the game.
"He's going to be a special player," Beckham said. "This is a moment in your career, it's never going to break you. It's only going to make you."
- The Chiefs only had 98 yards offense in the second half, averaging 3.3 yards per play.
- Smith's 16 tackles were the most by a Raven in a playoff game since Ray Lewis had 17 tackles against the Broncos in 2012.
- Flowers became the second rookie receiver in franchise history to have a 100-yard playoff game, joining Marquise Brown, who had 126 yards receiving against the Titans as a rookie.
- Mahomes is now 2-0 on the road during his career during the playoffs. The Chiefs had never played a road playoff game in his career until this postseason.
- Mark Andrews had two catches for 15 yards in his return to action after missing seven games following ankle surgery.