Five thoughts on the Ravens' 28-12 playoff loss to the Tennessee Titans Saturday night at M&T Bank Stadium:
It's going to sting. A lot. Maybe as much as any outcome in Ravens history. They've lost playoff games before, but never as a No. 1 seed that had won 12 straight games and become favorites to win the Super Bowl. There are losses and there are crushers. This is a crusher. It seemed like the Ravens' year. The stars were perfectly aligned for them to make a run. But the "clunker" everyone feared after so much success crystallized at the worst possible time. The Ravens who were so dominant during the regular season never appeared. Saturday night's Ravens were out of sync, a step slow, error-prone. On the heels of one of the greatest regular season performances in NFL history, Lamar Jackson was erratic, indecisive, flustered. Give the Titans credit. They won the interior battle on both sides of the ball, which was huge. They didn't make any mistakes. They took immediate advantage whenever the Ravens faltered. Basically, they taught a class in how to go on the road and spring an upset. They blew out the Ravens, leaving the favorites dazed, shocked, bitterly disappointed. How could that happen to this team? The question will haunt Baltimore for a long time.
I'll start with one simple stat line that illustrates how off-kilter Jackson and the Ravens' offense were: Mark Ingram II and Gus Edwards combined for just 42 rushing yards on nine carries. After helping the Ravens set the NFL's all-time team rushing record this season, the running backs were a non-factor Saturday night. It was partly due to the Titans' defensive interior, which held its ground impressively against the Ravens' offensive line. There weren't many holes. It was also a factor that the Ravens fell behind quickly, tried to rally, then fell way behind, which meant Jackson had to resort to passing more to try to catch up. Basically, the Ravens never established the rhythmic, ground-and-pound foundation that was so important all season. "We got out of our element a little too fast," said Jackson, who lost a fumble, threw two interceptions and was sacked four times. For most of the game, the offense consisted of Jackson running around and trying to make stuff happen. He gave his all, as always, and ended up rushing for 143 yards and passing for 365, which sounds great. But a lot of it came with the Ravens in hurry-up, catch-up mode, after the damage was done.
No one blinked when Head Coach John Harbaugh went for it twice on fourth-and-1, once in the second quarter, once in the third quarter. The Ravens had been aggressive in such situations all season. They'd led the league in converting fourth downs into firsts. They hadn't faltered on fourth-and-1 all year. But their regular season mojo didn't work this time. They were stuffed twice, forced to turn the ball over on downs. And what really made it a problem was the Titans, showing admirable killer instinct, immediately made them pay both times. Ryan Tannehill tossed a long touchdown pass on the first play after the stuff in the second quarter, giving the Titans a 14-0 lead. And after the stuff in the third quarter, which came in the red zone after a long Baltimore drive, the Titans quickly drove 81 yards to a dagger of a touchdown. Bottom line, what had worked all year cost the Ravens dearly. Jackson is quite a weapon on fourth and short, but it didn't matter this time. The issue was the execution on the field, not the decision to be aggressive, which was nothing new.
When the Ravens faltered on defense, lost to the Cleveland Browns in Week 4 and started rebuilding their defense on the fly, the primary goal, no question, was to get back to stopping the run. That has been the first commandment of defense forever around here, and the players on the newly-configured unit did a nice job the rest of the season – so nice that I'm guessing they figured they could handle Tennessee's rugged Derrick Henry, or at least keep him from dominating. But they couldn't stop him. Henry came in on a roll and just kept going, churning through the Ravens' defense for 195 rushing yards, which is really something when you consider the Titans had just 300 yards of offense overall. Basically, he was all they had. But he was all they needed. It was a rough ending to the season for the Ravens' defense, reaffirming the principle that caused them to try to shore up the unit in the first place those months ago: If you can't stop the run, you're in trouble.
Quick Hits: Players who excelled in defeat included rookie receiver Marquise Brown, who had an extremely strong game with seven catches for 126 yards; and safety Earl Thomas III, who had a team-high six solo tackles, a sack and a quarterback hit … The Titans had more quarterback hits (7) than the Ravens (4) but that's hardly a surprise considering Jackson attempted a career-high 59 passes while Tannehill attempted just 14 … It's interesting to consider what might have happened if Jackson hadn't led Mark Andrews by a tad too much on a pass down the middle on the Ravens' first drive. The pass was intercepted and the Titans quickly converted the turnover into a touchdown, giving them the lead, which they never lost. If that one pass had just been an incompletion, well, never mind … The Ravens are now 1-2 in home divisional-round playoff games.