Five thoughts on the Ravens' 20-13 playoff win over the Tennessee Titans Sunday at Nissan Stadium:
I'm trying to think of all of the criticisms of the Ravens that were disproved with this win. Couldn't beat good teams. Couldn't win a playoff game. Couldn't come from behind. Weren't built for the postseason. Couldn't pass well enough. Tended to panic when things didn't go their way early. Didn't make adjustments. Am I leaving anything out? Probably, but no doubt, it was all in play when the Titans took a 10-point lead in the first quarter. But instead of more of the same narrative, the Ravens wrote a new one. Defensive lineman Derek Wolfe walked the sidelines saying, "Don't look at the scoreboard. Don't look at the scoreboard until the end. You can't let up." They didn't. The defense dominated the final three quarters with a jaws-out physical performance for the ages. Lamar Jackson and the offense methodically moved the ball and mixed in big plays. The result meant so much to the players and coaches that a torrent of emotions spilled out after the game. Head Coach John Harbaugh called it the best win he has ever been associated with, and while the Super Bowl was kind of big, I get what he means. The Ravens had so much to prove (or disprove). They had so much adversity during a season that included key injuries and a wicked COVID-19 outbreak. It all makes this gritty win almost impossibly sweet.
You have to start with the defense, because that is the unit that was under fierce scrutiny after its performances in two losses to the Titans over the past year. The lesson in those games was the Titans were tougher – a lesson that challenged the Ravens' very vision of who they are. It was tough to swallow, but conveniently, a terrific motivating tool for this game. Tennessee's Derrick Henry destroyed the Ravens in those games, but Sunday, for the first time, the Ravens had Wolfe, Calais Campbell and Brandon Williams all on the field, healthy and determined to make a statement. Boy, did they. Henry had almost no holes to exploit and gained just 40 yards, his lowest output of the season. Shutting him down threw the Titans' play-action passing game off kilter, and they managed just 83 yards of offense in the final three quarters. I'm hesitant to single out anyone because it was a collective effort, but linebackers Pernell McPhee and Matthew Judon were all over the field and cornerbacks Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters didn't budge against tough receivers in the last three quarters. Did you ever wonder what it means when someone talks about how your father's Ravens played defense? This was it.
It's easy to single out the most important play. I'm not sure how the game would have turned out if Jackson had been sacked when the Titans brought pressure and nearly got him on third-and-9 at the Tennessee 48 in the second quarter. The Ravens were down, 10-3, and their offense wasn't having nearly the success many envisioned. Another sack would have been deflating. But in a flash of defining brilliance, Jackson eluded the pressure, took off and didn't stop until he'd scored – a jaw-dropping, game-altering moment. Suddenly, the Ravens were no longer behind – a huge psychological boost after they'd started slowly. And just as suddenly, the Ravens' offense was clicking. It began the second half with a 77-yard touchdown drive, which produced the decisive points, and never stopped controlling the clock. A big reason was an adjustment by Offensive Coordinator Greg Roman. The Titans' defense came out stacked against both the run and passes over the middle, so Jackson started working the edges and found success as Pat Ricard and Hollywood Brown reeled in passes that moved the chains. The gremlin that was haunting Jackson about his 0-2 record in the playoffs died a slow, painful death as the third-year quarterback showcased his ability to manage a game and methodically make winning plays as well as highlight-reel specials. It sounds weird, but the reigning league MVP is maturing as a pro quarterback. Just ask the Titans.
I'm guessing the Ravens weren't surprised in the least to see the Titans stacking their defense against the run, which meant, in effect, that they were daring the Ravens to beat them in the air. I mean, who wouldn't? The Ravens had averaged 267 rushing yards per game during their season-ending five-game winning streak, and their passing game was among the league's lowest-rated. To keep the strategy from working, the Ravens' wide receivers needed to make the Titans pay. Brown did just that. The second-year receiver has experienced his share of ups and downs in 2020, but let the record show that he came up huge when the Ravens really needed him. And contrary to his reputation, he didn't do it with some big downfield play like his already-legendary catch against the Browns in December. He just steadily burned the Titans, taking what was being given, moving the chains, ending the game with seven catches for 109 yards. (His stat line jumps to nine touches for 128 yards if you include a pair of lateral receptions that count as runs.) As with Jackson, it's evidence of a young player growing up before your eyes. "He has come up big for us. You've got to make plays in the passing game," Harbaugh said.
Short takes: I thought the officials definitely let the receivers and defensive backs play, which is why I didn't get the offensive pass interference flag on Willie Snead IV that short-circuited what could have been a clinching drive for the Ravens. There was minimal contact at best … It was no surprise the Ravens' running backs didn't dominate against a stacked defense, but J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards still combined for 81 yards rushing on 17 carries, an average of 4.8 yards per carry … The Ravens' first postseason win since 2014 gives them a 6-0 record as a franchise when playing on the road in the wild-card round. Not bad.