Lamar Jackson’s critics are going to need something else now.
After he silenced most with an MVP season in 2019, Jackson’s detractors pointed to an 0-2 record in the playoffs and underwhelming play in the postseason. They can’t do that anymore.
Jackson ran for 136 yards and a dazzling 48-yard touchdown as the fifth-seeded Ravens rallied from an early 10-0 deficit to beat the fourth-seeded Tennessee Titans, 20-13, on Jan. 10 and move on to the divisional round of the playoffs next weekend.
“This may be the best win I’ve ever been associated with,” head coach John Harbaugh said.
The Ravens will visit the second-seeded Buffalo Bills on Saturday, Jan. 16, at 8:15 p.m. The Bills turned back the Indianapolis Colts, 27-24, on Jan. 9. The sixth-seeded Cleveland Browns upset the third-seeded Pittsburgh Steelers, 48-37, and will travel to the top-seeded Kansas City Chiefs in the other AFC divisional round game, scheduled for Jan. 17 at 3 p.m.
In avenging a first-round playoff loss last season and a Week 11 loss to the Titans this year, the Ravens also captured their first playoff win since the 2014 season.
They missed the playoffs each year from 2015-2017, then lost their playoff opener in each of the past two years. The focus of both of those losses, fairly or not, fell squarely on Jackson.
Harbaugh acknowleged that there was “a lot of attention” on Jackson’s 0-2 playoff record, saying, “That’s how it works. We understand the nature of it.”
Harbaugh stressed that “it’s a team game,” and he praised the defensive dominance, but he knew as well as anyone that Jackson’s postseason record was an unavoidable narrative.
“It’s something that we won’t have to talk about in the future,” he added, “and that’s a meaningful thing.”
Harbaugh said Jackson received a game ball afterward.
While Jackson will get much of the headlines, the Ravens’ defense was exceptional in bottling up Tennessee All-Pro running back Derrick Henry, who finished with 40 yards on 18 carries.
After falling behind 10-0, the Ravens drew even at 10-10 in the second quarter on Jackson’s dazzling, 48-yard touchdown scramble with 2:32 left in the half.
They took the lead for good on the opening drive of the third quarter, marching 77 yards in 10 plays. Fullback Patrick Ricard had three catches on that drive, then blasted open a hole for running back J.K. Dobbins, who scored on four-yard run.
Here are five quick impressions of the win, which gives the Ravens a 5-0 record in road wild-card playoff games under Harbaugh:
1. Poised Lamar Jackson deserves to feel both elated and relieved after first postseason win.
Pretty much since last season ended, the questions about Lamar Jackson’s 0-2 playoff record has hounded him like an All-Pro edge rusher. He knew he could never shake them until he won one.
Then early in this game, his deep pass for Miles Boykin sailed too far down the middle and was intercepted. The Titans converted the turnover into three points on a 45-yard field goal by Stephen Gostkowski, and Jackson and the Ravens found themselves down 10-0.
But despite his playoff struggles, and his 0-6 record as a starter when down 10 points, Jackson never lost his poise.
“He was calm, and he was like, ‘We’re going to get back,'” receiver Marquise Brown said. “And that’s exactly what he did. He brought us back.”
Jackson said that when they trailed 10-0, teammates told him they had his back, “and I was telling them the same thing. But I wasn’t shying away from the game at all. After the turnover, I just locked in even more, and we just battled.”
Jackson is always a snap away from being spectacular, and he is often at his best, and at his most indefensible, when he’s spontaneous. That was on full display on a third-and-9 play late in the second quarter.
Jackson dropped back to throw, and finding no one open, tucked the ball and found a lane. He accelerated past Titans safety Kevin Byard and outraced everyone to the corner of the end zone for a 48-yard touchdown run that tied the game at 10.
“That’s one of the best runs I’ve ever seen,” Harbaugh said. “It’s the best run I’ve ever seen by a quarterback.”
Later in the game, with the Ravens trying to salt away the clock, Jackson kept off right side and ran 33 yards. He finished with 16 carries for 136 yards and a touchdown, and completed 17 of 24 passes for 179 yards. As the final seconds ticked off, he raced off the field, probably rightfully feeling elation and relief all at once as the Ravens advance.
“All of the criticism he’s been getting is just unfair,” fullback Patrick Ricard said, “and for him to play the way he did and get this win, I think it’s going to silence a lot of doubters.”
2. The defensive front won this game for the Ravens.
Derek Wolfe said the Ravens hoped to keep Titans running back Derrick Henry under 90 yards. He had 195 in the Titans playoff win against the Ravens last year, and he had 133 and the game-winning touchdown in the Week 11 overtime win by the Titans this year.
But in this game, there was nowhere for him to go.
Henry, who led the league with 2,027 yards this season, finished with 18 carries for 40 yards. Wolfe and Pernell McPhee led the Ravens with six tackles each. Linebacker Patrick Queen had just two. Translation: Henry wasn’t even getting to the second level, stuffed early and often by a Ravens run defense that was flat-out dominant.
The Ravens essentially brought Wolfe and Calais Campbell to town for precisely this kind of game. After being bullied by Henry and the Titans in the playoffs last year, and again in Week 11 this year — Campbell and run-stuffer Brandon Williams both missed that game — the Ravens slammed the door on that idea this time around.
In the past two meetings, the Ravens handled Henry early but then he hurt them with big runs as the game wore on. This time, a healthy defensive front never allowed that to happen. Henry’s longest run of the game went for 8 yards.
“I’ve got a ton of respect for Derrick Henry,” Wolfe said. “He’s the hardest running back I’ve ever had to tackle. So you’ve got to bring it every time you tackle him.”
Harbaugh called the defensive effort “disciplined. It was eyes on your luggage. It was finishing. It was running to the ball. It was tackling.”
The defensive front also disrupted the rhythm of Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill, who finished 18-for-26 for 165 yards. He was sacked just once (by Wolfe), but he struggled to sustain drives, and Harbaugh said pressure from Yannick Ngakoue forced a fourth-quarter interception by Marcus Peters that proved to be the Titans final offensive snap.
Jackson will rightfully get a lot of praise for this win, but make no mistake: This game was won in the trenches, especially on defense.
3. The final play of the first quarter changed everything.
The Ravens trailed 10-0, they had already committed one bad turnover, and the Titans’ defense was swarming. Too much looked too similar to the playoff last year as the Ravens came to the line of scrimmage on third-and-7 from the 28-yard line with the first quarter winding down.
They could ill afford to give the ball up again and let the Titans potentially add to their first-half lead.
Jackson rolled to his right, avoided pressure and fired a pass to Mark Andrews caught in traffic on the right sideline for a gain of 17. As the first quarter ended, the Ravens had a new set of downs and, for the first time, a hint of optimism.
They mounted their first sustained drive of the game, and while it stalled in the red zone and ended with a 33-yard field goal by Justin Tucker, it felt as if the Ravens had settled down.
When the Titans got the ball back, Derek Wolfe’s sack forced a quick punt, and seven plays later, Jackson’s dazzling 48-yard touchdown run and Tucker’s conversion tied the game. Whatever momentum the Titans had, whatever playoff fears the Ravens had, had completely vanished. It was game on.
Every game is a collection of plays, and a 17-yard gain in the middle of the field will never make the highlight reels, but it’s hard to overestimate the importance of that third-down conversion.
4. Playoff Marquise Brown is a force to be reckoned with.
The Ravens’ second-year receiver was maligned at times this year for dropped passes, but he has surged during the final month of the season, and he has come up big in both of his postseason appearances.
Brown, who had seven catches for 126 yards in the playoff loss last year, finished this game with seven catches for 106 yards on a team-high nine targets.
And Brown’s most important catch technically didn’t even count as one; Brown took a swing pass from Lamar Jackson that was technically a lateral on a questionable play-call inside the Ravens 10-yard line, but he was able to corral the ball and gain 4 yards when an incompletion actually would have been a disastrous fumble.
Jackson and tight end Mark Andrews (four catches, 41 yards) have had the best chemistry in the passing game since they arrived in Baltimore together in 2018. Brown’s rookie preseason was derailed by an injury, and he and Jackson, best friends off the field, at times were not always on the same page.
Brown’s uneven season included him publicly griping via Twitter after he was held to one catch for 3 yards in loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers in early November, and three weeks later he was held without a catch for the first time in his career in the loss to the Titans. But he steadily surged during the season’s homestretch, with six touchdowns in the final six games, and he needs to be a consistent part of whatever the Ravens want to do in the passing game.
Most notably, Brown has played big on the postseason’s big stage. He has topped the 100-yard mark in two of 30 career regular-season games, and now has done so twice in two postseason games.
5. Titans head coach Mike Vrabel played not to lose. So he did.
Mike Vrabel and his Titans team bullied the Ravens in the playoff game last year, and in the Week 11 game this year, won by the Titans, 30-24, in overtime. Vrabel and the Titans wore down the Ravens and let Derrick Henry take over late in those games.
Which made Vrabel’s decision-making in the fourth quarter so curious, as he essentially took the ball out of the hands of his 2,000-yard rusher not once, but twice, at a critical time.
With the Titans trailing 17-13 and about 10 minutes remaining, Henry fought for an 8-yard gain — his longest of the game — that gave the Titans second-and-2 at the Ravens’ 40-yard line. But rather than hand the ball to Henry again, Ryan Tannehill threw incomplete to A.J. Brown. Then on third-and-2, Tannehill tried to throw a swing pass to Jonnu Smith, but DeShon Elliott made a jolting hit to force an incompletion.
Facing fourth-and-2, from the Ravens’ 40, the Titans opted to punt.
Granted, the way the Ravens’ defense was dominating up front all day, maybe Henry wouldn’t have gained 2 yards. But even after the second-down incompletion to Brown, Vrabel and the Titans essentially had two cracks at it. Instead, they took none.
Vrabel got cautious. This time, it appears, the Titans backed down from the Ravens bullying. The punt felt like a play-not-to-lose move, and they lost.
This story was updated to reflect the result of the Browns-Steelers game.
Photo Credit: Kenya Allen/PressBox