For as long as the 2021 offseason lasts, and perhaps longer, the Ravens will think of Bills players running free across the field as the league’s reigning MVP laid in his own endzone with his hands on his head.
They’ll think about a missed block by running back J.K. Dobbins, which turned an easy touchdown into an incomplete pass in the red zone. They’ll think about the ensuing play where Jackson didn’t see defensive back Taron Johnson and was picked off, as the Bills tallied a 101-yard interception return for a touchdown.
They’ll think about how Dobbins was stuffed at the line of scrimmage on the first play of the next drive, and most importantly, they’ll think about how a bad snap forced Jackson to pick up the football in a rush and heave it out of bounds, only to slam his head into the turf and suffer a concussion.
They’ll think about what could’ve been if perhaps just one of those plays at the end of the third quarter had turned out differently. Instead, their season ended in four catastrophic snaps.
With a 17-3 loss to the Bills on Saturday, the Ravens made mistake after mistake and, for the second-straight season, lost in the AFC Divisional Round with no guiltier party than themselves.
“We know what we have in this locker room, and we fell short the past three years,” wide receiver Willie Snead said. “That’s frustrating itself, but when we’re clicking, and we’re on, and we’re executing the gameplan, the defense is playing lights out, we’re a hard team to beat. It was just one of those games where things weren’t going our way.”
Of course, the Ravens had their chances before the third quarter wound down. Those four plays to put the game to bed were simply emblematic of larger problems that plagued the Ravens all night.
The offensive line was beaten by the Bills’ defensive front, as the run game wasn’t able to get much going all night long and Jackson was hit on eight of his 24 dropbacks. Running backs Gus Edwards and Dobbins managed just 4.2 yards per carry against a defense that allowed 4.6 yards per carry in the regular season.
Center Patrick Mekari’s snaps, which had been good all season after he, ironically, replaced center Matt Skura after poor snaps in New England, were a problem from the start. On one of the snaps, Jackson committed an intentional grounding while trying to put the Ravens out of danger. Instead, he suffered a concussion after being knocked to the ground.
The Ravens committed eight penalties for 59 yards, while the Bills committed just two for 11 yards. Even Justin Tucker, kicking in blustery Buffalo weather, missed two field goals in the first half — with both kicks bouncing off the goalposts.
“Today just wasn’t our day,” defensive end Calais Campbell said. “Football fortune went against us. And honestly, we fought hard, we gave what we had. It just wasn’t meant to be today.”
The defense, to its everlasting credit, was lights out and allowed just 10 offensive points to the Bills. And despite a 19-17 advantage in first downs, a 340-220 advantage in total yards, a 73-55 advantage in plays, a 35:33-24:27 advantage in time of possession, the Ravens found a way to lose.
“We knew it was going to be one of those games when it’ll come down to one big play,” Campbell said. “That’s playoff football always, anyway. I thought if we played this game 10 times, it would be a lot different than what it was today. It’s just one of those days where we just didn’t get it done — and they did. They made the plays when it mattered. They made the big plays. And you have to give them respect, they earned it.”
The Ravens, as they pointed out, didn’t play all that poorly aside from their key mistakes. They ran the ball not to the standard they’re used to, but the Bills simply abandoned the run altogether — their leading rusher, running back Devin Singletary, had seven carries for 25 yards. Jackson’s interception came on the 15th play of a 66-yard drive that lasted nearly nine minutes.
The plays they needed to make, simply, were there. Tucker’s two missed field goals hurt, as did a Dobbins drop that would’ve extended a drive in the first quarter. A deep ball from Tyler Huntley, who replaced the concussed Jackson, sailed a few yards beyond the outstretched and wide-open arms of Marquise Brown. A later drive by Huntley ended at the Bills 10-yard line, when tight end Mark Andrews tried mightily, but couldn’t haul in a pass surrounded by three defenders.
They entered Bills territory five times on their 10 possessions and all five times drove inside the 30-yard line. They left the stadium with three points.
“We moved the ball, we were able to do some things, we had some really good plays,” Andrews said. “We made some plays, but things just didn’t happen at the right times, and we didn’t make the plays when we needed to — and that was it.”
The loss sent the Ravens packing for the offseason and the Bills onto the AFC Championship Game, where they’ll await the winner of Chiefs-Browns in Sunday afternoon’s affair. There’s no doubt the Ravens will think about how they could be them instead.
The Ravens’ loss will draw comparisons to last season’s frustrating loss to the Titans in the same round, where the Ravens dropped numerous passes, blew key scoring opportunities and lost to a team many thought they’d be able to beat. Instead, a talented team with Super Bowl aspirations saw its season end with a flurry of uncharacteristic mistakes and missed opportunities.
What’s next for the Ravens isn’t an easy question to answer. They’ve got a few notable free agents, including nearly their entire outside linebacking corps and an offense that, once again, will need to emphasize taking another step as a passing offense.
The problem is the same questions that plagued the Ravens for the 2020 season aren’t going away.
“Three years in a row, being in the playoffs, and not making that push to reach our full potential,” Snead said. “But, that’s football. It is what it is. We’ve just got to continue to get better, come back next year and do what we need to do.”
Next year, though, is a tough thought to digest for a Ravens team that was clearly built for this year.
They went out and added Campbell and Derek Wolfe in free agency to bolster the defensive line. They added Yannick Ngakoue midway through the season to help the pass rush. They drafted Patrick Queen and Malik Harrison to shore up the inside linebacker position.
Dobbins was added to the mix on offense, as was wide receiver Devin Duvernay to give the team a mix of speed and sure-handedness they didn’t have last season.
The 2021 playoffs were supposed to be a race for the Super Bowl with, objectively, one of the league’s most talented and well-coached rosters. Instead, January of 2021 will be a race for answers.
The toughest part for the Ravens, though, is that they were on the doorstep of what they wanted to accomplish. They just need to find a way to get those four plays they need — and that's certainly something they're thinking about, too.
“It’s part of football, man,” Snead said of Jackson’s interception. “It is what it is. Just wish you could have those plays back — you know what I mean?”