Five thoughts on the Ravens' 17-3 playoff loss to the Buffalo Bills Saturday night at Bills Stadium:
This is the kind of night it was: Justin Tucker had never missed a field goal attempt from inside the 50 in the postseason, but he missed two. And Lamar Jackson had never thrown an interception in the red zone, but he threw one that become a back-breaking pick-six. What kind of night was it? A night of great possibilities that unraveled into a freaky horror show. A night that everyone hoped to remember, but instead, became one to forget. The Ravens had not lost in a long time and believed they were poised to reach the AFC title game for the first time in eight years – if they brought their "A" game. But they didn't, not even close. Buffalo's defense had a lot to do with it. It gave Lamar Jackson fits, cut off his running lanes, covered his targets, sent a stream of blitzers at him. Jackson was harassed, hit, and his offense struggled to establish a rhythm. The Ravens' defense held up well against a potent offense, but on a wild and windy night when points were hard to come by, the lack of offense spelled defeat. It wasn't how anyone thought the Ravens would go out, but that doesn't lessen the disappointment.
Jackson had thrown 49 touchdowns and no interceptions in the red zone in his three seasons with the Ravens. A remarkable record. There was good reason to believe the Ravens, down by seven, were about to tie the score when they drove into Buffalo territory in the third quarter and began a series of downs at the nine. But on the third down, Jackson tossed a pass at Mark Andrews and never saw Buffalo cornerback Taron Johnson. "He made a good play," Andrews said. The throw will haunt Jackson, and as if the pick itself wasn't bad enough, Johnson started running with the ball and didn't stop until he'd scored. It was a classic example of the axiom that NFL games can be decided by just a few plays, or sometimes, even one. If Jackson had just thrown an incompletion, this would have been a much closer and very different game going forward. But after he threw the interception, the Ravens suddenly were down by two touchdowns and in big trouble. And in an especially cruel twist for Jackson, he never had a chance to atone for his mistake. He was knocked out of the game with a concussion a few minutes later.
I was far from alone in expecting the game to boil down to how well the Ravens' defense stopped quarterback Josh Allen and Buffalo's offense. That was the consensus analysis coming in. And what's tough about the loss is the defense did its job, limiting Buffalo to a single offensive touchdown. "I was very proud of the way our defense played. They played their hearts out," Ravens Head Coach John Harbaugh said. The defense kept Allen and his dangerous wideouts relatively in check and succeeded in getting off the field, denying the Bills on nine of 13 third downs. I thought the Bills' play-calling helped Baltimore early as the Bills were so intent on passing that Allen dropped back on 19 straight plays to open the game. It's hard to prevail against a tough defense when you're that one-dimensional. When the Bills started to blend in runs on their first possession of the second half, they drove to a touchdown that ended up providing the winning points. But that was the only lapse for a Baltimore defense that played well enough to win.
The weirdness didn't stop with the red-zone pick-six or Tucker's misses, which were largely attributable to a vicious, swirling wind. Sam Koch shanked a punt into the same wind. He never does that. J.K. Dobbins dropped a pair of passes. Patrick Mekari, who'd been a rock-solid snapper, suddenly struggled to throw strikes. On one offensive series in the second quarter, a sack of Jackson was followed by three straight penalties – holding, false start, false start. No one is going to say the Ravens were sharp. But the weirdest sight of all was the offense trying to save the season with a late rally behind Tyler Huntley, an undrafted rookie quarterback who was Jackson's backup due to injuries to Robert Griffin III and Trace McSorley. Raise your hand if you expected Huntley to be under center with the season on the line in January. (Didn't think so.) But he was the next man up when Jackson went out, and the thing is, he showed poise, ran the offense well and actually came close to making things interesting. On a fourth down midway through the fourth quarter, he was heavily blitzed but found Hollywood Brown running open downfield and launched a deep throw that just overshot the target. "I think the wind got it," Harbaugh said. Later, Huntley led a long drive that eventually came up short in the red zone. "He has a ton of heart," Andrews said of Huntley, who was tossed cold into a situation of unimaginably high stakes and looked like a viable NFL quarterback.
Short takes: One of the great success stories of the Ravens' season was seeing the offensive line come together and dominate down the stretch despite losing Ronnie Stanley to an injury and churning through multiple starters at several spots. But the line's strong run abruptly ended Saturday night as the Bills' defensive front gave it all sorts of trouble. … The Bills didn't lose a turnover and were penalized just twice for 11 yards. That's how you win a game. The Ravens accrued 59 penalty yards on eight flags … in fairness, one of the penalties was maybe the lamest roughing-the-passer call you'll ever see (on Justin Madubuike) … Even on a night when the offense wasn't clicking, the Ravens ran 18 more plays than the Bills, had 120 more yards of offense and were much better on third down. "We executed well at times and moved the ball, but we didn't finish," Harbaugh said.