As well as the defense was playing, the Ravens might have been able to overcome two missed field-goal tries by Justin Tucker. They might have been able to overcome a couple of dropped passes by J.K. Dobbins.
But a cavalcade of errors culminated with two in the third quarter that essentially doomed their fate. With the Ravens trailing 10-3, Lamar Jackson’s first red-zone interception of his career was returned 101 yards for a touchdown by Taron Johnson, and Jackson later had to leave the game with a concussion after fielding an errant snap and then slamming his head into the turf as he was tackled.
Those miscues, Jackson’s injury, and the inability to find the end zone added up to a disheartening 17-3 loss to the host Buffalo Bills in a divisional-round playoff game Jan. 16 that ends the Ravens’ season and six-game winning streak.
The Bills advance to play in the AFC championship game next week against the winner of the game between the Kansas City Chiefs and the Cleveland Browns, while the Ravens are left to ponder how so much went so wrong after so much had gone so right during the previous six weeks.
“It’s a tough loss,” Ravens head coach John Harbaugh said. “To get to the [AFC] championship game, you have to play two really great games, and things have to bounce your way. That didn’t happen for us today, but I’m proud of the guys, nonetheless.”
The Ravens began the game exactly as they hoped, with runs of 12, 10 and 9 yards on their first three plays. But an opening drive that lasted nearly half of the first quarter ended with the first of two field-goal misses by Tucker in the gusty winds of Bills Stadium, and from then on, the Ravens struggled to find any offensive rhythm.
Their lone points came when Tucker knifed a 34-yard kick through the wind with 4 seconds left in the first half for a 3-3 tie. After the Bills drove for a go-ahead score on their opening possession of the second half, the Ravens appeared ready to answer, moving the ball 66 yards to the Bills’ 9-yard line.
Then on third-and-goal, Jackson tried to force a pass to Mark Andrews in the end zone. Johnson cut across to grab the ball and outraced everyone down the right sideline for 101-yard score. Whatever hope the Ravens had for a comeback essentially ended on the final play of the third quarter. With the Ravens facing second-and-10 from their own 25, Patrick Mekari’s snap sailed over Jackson’s head. He raced back to retrieve it, unloaded a hurried pass that was ruled intentional grounding, and then slammed his head on the blue turf of the Bills’ end zone as he was tackled.
Jackson’s night was done as he was ruled out with a concussion. Tyler Huntley ran the Ravens’ offense in the fourth quarter, and the practice-squad callup comported himself well, but a fourth-and-goal incompletion in the end zone with 2:41 left proved to the Ravens’ last gasp.
Here are five quick impressions about the game, which is tied for the lowest offensive output in John Harbaugh’s 13-year tenure with the Ravens:
1. The Ravens’ mistakes went well beyond an interception.
At this point in the postseason, there isn’t much margin for error. Only quality teams are playing in mid-January, and even little mistakes against them can be disastrous. Sure, the interception thrown by Lamar Jackson that was returned for 101 yards will get most of the attention, but the mistakes began early and really never let up for the Ravens. It was a most uncharacteristic showing for a team that had rarely beaten itself with mistakes this year.
To be fair, the Bills deserve credit for creating some of the problems, and they outplayed the Ravens from start to finish. But some of the mistakes were self-inflicted.
Tucker missed two field-goal attempts that kissed uprights as he struggled in the gusty winds. (Bills kicker Tyler Bass also missed two.) Center Patrick Mekari had struggles snapping the ball all night. He sailed two high and bounced another one that looked more like a grounder to short. Gus Edwards fumbled in the first half (though the Ravens recovered). J.K. Dobbins dropped a pair of passes, turning upfield before securing the ball, and one of them was deep in the red zone and might have been a touchdown.
Even the defense, which did a superb job to hold the Bills’ high-powered offense to 10 points, got itself into a personnel mismatch near the goal line, with a bunch formation leading to an easy 3-yard touchdown by Stefon Diggs for the only offensive score of the game.
For the past six weeks, ever since the Ravens entered must-win mode with a 6-5 record, they have been sharp and have played what coach John Harbaugh often describes as “winning football.” The collection of miscues in this game was definitely not that.
2. The Bills committed to stopping the run, and the Ravens couldn’t make them pay.
This Bills defense wasn’t considered as strong as last year’s, when they held the Ravens to 118 rushing yards, their lowest total of the season. And the Ravens gashed the Bills for 31 yards on their first three plays from scrimmage. But from then on, the rushing yards proved hard to come by.
The Bills began stacking the box, containing Jackson as a runner and also limiting both J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards, each of whom finished with 42 yards on 10 carries. It was as if the Bills were daring the Ravens to beat them through the air. Last year, Jackson hooked up with Hayden Hurst on a 61-yard touchdown off play action in one of the critical plays in a 24-17 win, but no such plays materialized this time.
Jackson’s best stretch through the air came in the final minute of the first half, as he led the Ravens 57 yards in seven plays, the key being a 30-yard throw on the run to Marquise Brown. But other times when the Ravens tried to set up passes with play action, Jackson was quickly under pressure, and the Bills did a great job diagnosing Jackson’s decision at the mesh point on the read option.
This Ravens team has proved to be as dynamic a running team as there is in this league. But in playoff losses in three consecutive years, teams have figured out a way to control that running game, daring Jackson and the Ravens to beat them through the air. The Ravens haven’t yet shown they can do that consistently against playoff-caliber defenses.
3. The offensive line didn’t give Jackson much of a chance.
The play of this offensive line has been instrumental to the Ravens’ success during the second half of the season, particularly after losing All-Pro tackle Ronnie Stanley to an injury. This group deserves a lot of credit for reinventing itself after Stanley’s injury.
But in this game, they seemed consistently overmatched. The Bills were aggressive, blitzing often, but they also caused trouble when they rushed just four. Lamar Jackson rarely had a clean pocket to look downfield, and some of his best plays came when escaping pressure.
“They didn’t do anything that surprised us,” head coach John Harbaugh said. “We were prepared for it. I thought the executed well. We executed well at times. We weren’t able to finish the drives and get the points that we needed. That’s the bottom line.”
The narrative was that this Bills defense wasn’t as strong as the one that held the Ravens to a season-low 118 rushing yards last year, but their defensive line consistently won at the point of attack, putting the Ravens in long down-and-distance situations.
It was a disastrous night for center Patrick Mekari, who had several bad snaps, including one that led to Jackson’s concussion. Right guard Ben Powers also struggled with protection and had a penalty that wiped out an 18-yard run by Jackson.
4. Two red-zone possessions made the difference.
The Ravens held Josh Allen and the Bills’ No. 2-ranked offense to 10 points, a superb effort against a team that had averaged 36 points during their seven-game winning streak. To be sure, the big-armed Allen just missed on a few deep shots when his receivers got behind Ravens defenders, as the wind appeared to carry the ball too far.
But the Bills had just one drive of more than 38 yards, that being their 66-yard touchdown drive to open the second half. Other than that, the Ravens thwarted the Bills at every turn, whether that was Marlon Humphrey breaking up a pass in the end zone, forcing a short field goal, or Matthew Judon sacking Allen and forcing a fumble.
Still, each team had a key red-zone possession in the third quarter. The Bills made the most of theirs, as Allen found Stefon Diggs for a 3-yard touchdown. The Bills had lined up in a bunch formation, with three receivers to the left, and the Ravens were late getting a third defender there.
Then when the Ravens reached the red zone on the ensuing possession, they not only couldn’t score, but they gave up seven points. On first down, Jackson had trouble with yet another shaky snap and had to improvise to gain a yard. On second down, under pressure he misfired to Marquise Brown, and then on third down, his pass in the end zone to Andrews was picked off and returned the other way 101 yards for a score.
“[Johnson] just jumped it,” receiver Willie Snead said. “It just sucks, man, because we had a 15-play drive going there, and it looked like we were about to score. It was a huge momentum shift in the game. It’s part of football man. It is what it is. [You] just wish you could have those plays back.”
Both defenses played at a consistently high level all night, and the wind wreaked some havoc on offense and special teams. But the bottom line was when both teams got near the end zone, the Bills were able to convert, and the Ravens were not. At this time of year, that’s usually enough to make the difference.
5. Lamar Jackson answered critics with a playoff win. Now only a Super Bowl will suffice.
Lamar Jackson won’t have to listen to the talk about not winning a playoff game anymore. But coming home from Buffalo and staring at the offseason, that will be a hollow victory.
At this point, the Ravens know they need to put him, and them, in position to take the next step. Last year, the Ravens assessed themselves after their stunning loss to the Tennessee Titans and knew they needed to upgrade their run defense. This time around, it’s easy to look at a passing game that ranked last in the league and identify it as an area of concern.
For the Ravens, time is of the essence. They still have the luxury of Jackson on his rookie contract, which should allow them to allot more resources elsewhere on the roster. But within the next two years, Jackson and some of their other emerging stars such as Mark Andrews and Orlando Brown Jr. are going to be pending free agents. The Ravens have a roster that is close, that has been to the playoffs three straight years, and that has a lot of components in place to make another run next year. As with every year, there will be roster turnover this offseason. Three of the top four outside linebackers are pending free agents, several veterans on one-year contracts might not return, and salary-cap concerns could lead others to leave.
The team that returns next season, though, still has the dynamic Jackson at its center, and that’s a good place to start. But fair or not, the narrative now changes from, can Lamar Jackson win a playoff game to can Lamar Jackson win the Big One?
“He’s just the ultimate competitor,” Snead said. “He doesn’t like to lose, and he knows that he can be better. … I just know that he’s going to get better from this, like he always does, proving people wrong and just trying to take that next step in his journey.”
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