Just after 8:00 pm on Saturday, Jan. 11, Ravens fans inside roared unlike they had all season.
As quarterback Lamar Jackson emerged from the tunnel under the flashing lights at M&T Bank Stadium, the PA announcer roared his name and fans waved purple flags that read “Every Decibel Counts.” That Saturday was going to be the start of something special in Baltimore.
Everyone in the city, and throughout the league as a whole, thought the Ravens were destined for at least an AFC Championship Game appearance, and perhaps more. The entire team was young. Jackson had just turned 23 days prior and it wasn’t hard to imagine that day was the start of years of playoff success for the Ravens. It was going to be the first playoff win for the Ravens since Jan. 3, 2015, and the first of many for Jackson and his team.
And it took about 10 minutes for the energy in the stadium, both from the fans and the Ravens, to be sapped away.
The Ravens played the sloppiest they had in months, as they lost to the Titans 28-12 and blew their chance at hosting an AFC title game. 2020 was just 11 days old, but it wasn’t the start to the year that anyone could have foreseen.
“You don't ever expect to get into a car crash until you get into a car crash, and I feel like that's what it is,” outside linebacker Matthew Judon said after the game. “We were riding. We were rolling hot, and it hit us.”
The Ravens forced a Titans punt on the first drive of the game, then their record-setting offense went to work and quickly drove into Titans territory. Then the trouble began.
Jackson fired a pass to tight end Mark Andrews, who wasn’t able to corral the high ball while leaping in the air. It bounced off Andrews’ hands and into the arms of a Titans’ defender. The missed opportunity was the first of many.
The Titans scored on the ensuing drive, the Ravens were then stopped on 4th and one, and on the first play of the next Titans drive, quarterback Ryan Tannehill threw a 45-yard touchdown pass. In 16 plays, the Ravens had gone from a team charging ahead with momentum to a team on the ropes, down 14-0.
The rest of the game wasn’t any prettier. The Ravens totaled six drops, notably from Andrews and later from wide receiver Seth Roberts, who may have been sprung for a touchdown had he held onto a pass along the sideline.
In total, Jackson possessed the ball on 83 offensive plays, the most by any player in NFL history.
The Ravens were criticized for getting away from the run game too quickly, even with the calf injury that hampered running back Mark Ingram. He totaled just six carries. Running back Gus Edwards had just three carries, while Jackson had 20.
Jackson threw two interceptions and fumbled once, which gave the opportunistic Titans more chances than the Ravens could afford.
“We just beat ourselves,” Jackson said after the game. “We had, I had, a lot of mistakes on my half. Three turnovers, that shouldn’t happen. They came out to play. We just started out slow.”
The Ravens couldn’t stop Titans running back Derrick Henry, either, as he totaled 195 yards on 30 carries. Tannehill, like former safety Earl Thomas had predicted, didn’t beat the Ravens. Where Thomas was wrong, however, was that it didn’t go in the Ravens’ favor.
Tannehill completed just seven of 14 passes for 88 yards, though he threw two touchdowns as the Titans relied on their ground game for the win. Henry's stiff arm of Thomas went viral that night, too.
The Ravens out-gained the Titans 530-300, out-snapped them 92-53 and out-possessed them 32:06-to-27:54. But mistakes, both ones that led to turnovers and ones that didn’t, cost them dearly.
The shellshocked Ravens, who suffered their first loss since Sept. 2019, certainly didn’t forget the lessons of that loss in the offseason.
They boosted the defensive line and traded for Calais Campbell, signed free agent Derek Wolfe and drafted Justin Madubuike and Broderick Washington. They drafted inside linebackers Patrick Queen (in the first round) and Malik Harrison as it was clear they were set out to not get bullied on the ground like they had against the Titans.
Baltimore also drafted running back J.K. Dobbins, who has played very well as a rookie in the 2020 regular season. They drafted speedy wideout Devin Duvernay and sure-handed James Proche, both of whom have played well on special teams. Those added weapons were brought in with the Titans game in mind, as Jackson was essentially left to operate by himself with the Titans’ defense keying in on him every play.
In a larger sense, that loss to the Titans represents a bit more than just a disappointing defeat in the playoffs. The Ravens are currently 9-5 and on track for an 11-win season, but a spot in the playoffs isn’t guaranteed as of Week 16. The offense has struggled at times and only recently has found success reminiscent of 2019. The defense has been injured, particularly in the secondary.
The loss is a good example of how nothing is guaranteed in the NFL, even when it looks like something is inevitable. Even when it looks as sure of a thing as immediate Ravens’ success did when Jackson, the league’s future unanimous MVP, jogged with a towel around his neck, to midfield at M&T Bank Stadium in January.
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