BALTIMORE — The most successful regular-season in Ravens history ended abruptly with one of the most disappointing defeats in franchise history, as the sixth-seeded Tennessee Titans rolled into a raucous M&T Bank Stadium and beat the Ravens in every phase of the game, handing the Ravens a 28-12 defeat and sending the shocked Ravens to an early offseason.
The top-seeded Ravens (14-3) and their high-powered offense failed to score a touchdown in the first half and were hurt by three turnovers, while their defense had no answer for Titans monster running back Derrick Henry, who finished with 30 carries for 195 yards and also threw a 3-yard touchdown pass.
Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill completed just seven passes and threw for 88 yards, but 45 of them came on a gorgeous touchdown pass to Kalif Raymond one play after the Ravens were stuffed on fourth-and-1 for a 14-0 lead, and Tannehill also ran for a score.
The momentum of the game turned on the Ravens’ opening possession, when a pass from quarterback Lamar Jackson sailed on Mark Andrews, and the tipped pass was picked off by Titans safety Kevin Byard. A long return set up the Titans’ first touchdown, and after Jonnu Smith came down with a juggling, 12-yard catch for a 7-0 lead, the Titans never trailed.
For the Ravens, it’s a second straight one-and-done postseason, this time stinging even more after a 14-2 season.
“The sad reality of it is … we’ve been here two years in a row and we’ve lost,” cornerback Marlon Humphrey said. “So I think you gotta look yourself in the mirror. This team right now, its identity is to get to the playoffs and choke. It is what it is. It’s just a hard truth.”
Here are five quick impressions of the game, which ends the Ravens’ season after they set a franchise record for wins and wrapped up the AFC’s No. 1 seeding for the first time in franchise history:
1. Where was the Ravens’ offense that got them here?
The Ravens set an all-time NFL record with 3,296 rushing yards this year, and the running game led by Jackson and Mark Ingram has been the backbone of the Ravens’ offense all season. Yet in this game the Ravens steered away from the running game early, even when the game was still in the balance, and that deserves plenty of scrutiny.
In the first half, Jackson threw 22 passes and Ravens running backs carried a total of seven times. Ingram was clearly limited by a calf injury — he had his left leg wrapped toward the end of the first half — but head coach John Harbaugh said Ingram’s injury had no bearing on the Ravens’ play-calling or the game plan.
After falling behind 14-0, the Ravens called passes on eight of their 11 first-down plays in the second quarter. Jackson wasn’t particularly sharp and wasn’t helped by receivers who couldn’t hang on to a few catchable passes. That left the Ravens in long second- and third-down situations, but it was curious that even in the first half, before the Ravens were in desperation pass-only mode, this Ravens offense bore little resemblance to the one that steam-rolled over teams, becoming the first team in NFL history to average more than 200 rushing yards and 200 passing yards a game.
The thought was with Ingram hobbled, Gus Edwards would still be a capable power back for this offense, and he piled up a career-high 130 yards starting in place of Ingram in the regular-season finale against a strong Pittsburgh Steelers defense.
But Edwards was an afterthought in this game, with three carries for 20 yards.
“I trust in the OC [offensive coordinator Greg Roman],” Edwards said. “I trust his decision-making. … He saw something.”
The Ravens finished with 185 yards rushing, with 143 from Jackson, but they had just 61 at the half, and an offense anchored by a running game all season looked adrift in this game.
2. Was rust a factor? Not as much as the inspired Titans were.
The rust-vs.-rest debate is sure to rage after this game, as many key Ravens were coming off a nearly three-week layoff; several starters sat out the Week 17 win against Pittsburgh since the No. 1 seeding had already been secured, and then the Ravens had a bye last week.
The Ravens didn’t look sharp from the outset, but to attribute that simply to rust is to diminish a tremendous effort from the surging Titans on both sides of the ball.
The Ravens couldn’t stop Henry, who ran around them and over them and through them much like he had last week in a win against the New England Patriots.
The Titans’ defense, led by former Ravens coordinator Dean Pees, was on point all night, despite Jackson finishing with a deceptive and career-high 365 yards passing. The Titans stuffed the Ravens twice on fourth-and-inches, killing Ravens drives without points. Titans cornerbacks were outstanding, closing on Ravens receivers to break up pass after pass, including a two-point conversion. They sacked Jackson three times. They generated three turnovers.
Especially after Kevin Byard’s interception off a tipped pass on the Ravens’ opening series, the Titans had an energy and a swagger that the Ravens couldn’t match.
Was rust an issue? Perhaps. But the Titans were simply better in every phase of the game, and that’s to their credit.
“We tried to run the game plan that we thought was best against their defense,” Harbaugh said. “They did a good job with what they were doing. I thought they played really well, especially up front. The trenches on both sides, they played extremely well. That was the biggest difference.”
3. The Ravens didn’t seem too interested in tackling Derrick Henry, either.
Earlier this week, Ravens safety Earl Thomas declared that the New England Patriots hadn’t seemed too interested in tackling Derrick Henry, and the Ravens mindset would be different. Yet there was Henry stiff-arming Thomas and spinning him around on a long run, and there was Henry shedding Matthew Judon at the line of scrimmage on what turned into a 66-yard run on third-and-1 that set up a Titans touchdown.
Henry proved to be as big and tough as advertised, and the Ravens seemed powerless to stop him. Henry finished with 30 carries for 195 yards, and also threw a 3-yard touchdown pass off a Wildcat look.
Then playing with the lead in the second half, the Titans could lean on Henry to chew up clock and yardage, though he didn’t chew up quite as much clock as he might have since be bolted on a 66-yard run to set up his 3-yard touchdown pass for a 21-6 lead.
“He was running tough,” Thomas said. “In the third quarter, that long run he had … we had him tackled, he just ran through the arm tackle.”
“You just gotta tackle,” Thomas added. “When you arm-tackle, he just runs right through it. He’s a big back and he runs big.”
4. Playoff failures are going to be part of Lamar Jackson’s narrative until he wins in the postseason.
For all his Most Valuable Player credentials — and he deserves to win the MVP award after throwing 36 touchdowns and rushing for 1,200 yards, Jackson now has an 0-2 postseason record, and fair or not, that will loom over Jackson until he wins a game in the postseason.
“I don’t really care about what they say,” Jackson said. “This is my second year in the league. … I’ve got a great team with me. I don’t really worry about what people say. We’re just going to keep going, like I said, [and] get ready for next year.”
Jackson spoke of how the playoff loss to the Los Angeles Chargers last season drove him this year. He was the youngest NFL quarterback ever to start a playoff game that day, and one MVP-caliber year later, he seemed primed to erase that memory.
Instead, Jackson had another rough night despite statistics that included a career-high 365 passing yards and 143 rushing yards. Jackson was off-target a few times, wasn’t helped by his receivers dropping a few catchable balls, and committed three turnovers. Jackson was intercepted twice — after throwing one in his previous 10 games — and also lost a fumble on a strip sack.
He’s not the first quarterback to struggle in the postseason — Peyton Manning lost his first three playoff games — and he won’t be the last, but this is Jackson’s playoff record, and now it won’t be changing for at least a year.
For a player as ferociously competitive as Jackson, that will drive him.
5. The offseason questions start now.
The Ravens are suddenly staring at their offseason questions much sooner than they expected to be. To be sure, the Ravens are in an enviable spot with Jackson returning for his third season, with the core of their record-setting offense under contract and with several key players already signed to contract extensions this season.
Yet questions loom: Will Matthew Judon leave as a free agent? Will the Ravens use the franchise tag on him? Will All-Pro guard Marshal Yanda retire after 13 seasons in the trenches? Will Jimmy Smith be back? What about veteran Brandon Carr? Or Michael Pierce?
Coming off a 14-2 record, the Ravens have to be pleased with the nucleus that returns, but change happens every year in the NFL, and change will come to this team, too. They just didn’t expect to have to confront it quite so soon.
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