Ravens must endure “hard truth” until back on January stage

January 13, 2020 | Luke Jones

A few Ravens players described it as a nightmare, hoping to wake up Saturday morning with a mulligan.

Matthew Judon compared it to a car crash.

Lamar Jackson said the offense got “too excited” and out of its element “a little too fast” after falling behind early.

There was much blame to go around and plenty of theories why top-seeded Baltimore suffered a stunning 28-12 loss to Tennessee in the divisional round, but Marlon Humphrey’s words stung most for a team that had gone an NFL-best 14-2, won 12 straight games, and rewritten both the franchise and league record books during a magical regular season.

“We’ve been here two years in a row, and we’ve lost,” said Humphrey, citing last January’s wild-card home defeat to the Los Angeles Chargers. “I think you’ve got to look yourself in the mirror, and I think this team right now, its identity is to get in the playoffs and choke. It is what it is. That’s just the hard truth.”

The “choke” word is harsh, but it comes from someone who won a national championship and finished as runner-up in his other collegiate season at Alabama, where the standard is college football’s highest. When you dominate the NFL for three months before seeing your Super Bowl aspirations crumble in three hours against a 9-7 team in your home stadium, there are few scenarios in the sporting realm where the term is more appropriate. Setting numerous records and finishing with the NFL’s highest point differential (plus-249) since 16-0 New England in 2007, the Ravens indeed fell short of the expectations they’d created for themselves, let alone what media or fans anticipated going into the playoffs.

No matter how disappointing Saturday night was in Baltimore, the future remains as bright for the Ravens as any team in football. Jackson was far from his best — as you could say about virtually every other Raven against the Titans — but the dynamic 23-year-old will be the NFL MVP and leads a young, innovative, and record-setting offense with virtually everyone under contract for 2020. Barring something completely unforeseen, coordinators Greg Roman and Wink Martindale will both return after failing to land head coaching jobs elsewhere. And thanks to having a franchise quarterback entering the third season of his rookie contract, general manager Eric DeCosta begins the offseason with over $30 million in salary cap space before any potential maneuvering to clear more room.

But there are no guarantees, which makes laying the divisional-round egg that much more difficult to accept. Despite how easy the Ravens made it look all season, so much has to go remarkably well to go 14-2 and secure home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, some of it out of a team’s control. That’s not to say such a sterling record or the top seed is a requisite for a championship — the 2000 and 2012 teams send their regards — but luck plays a bigger part in a Super Bowl run than most want to admit. A first-round bye and playing at home is like being able to hedge your bets, much like John Harbaugh did by wisely not risking injury to Jackson and the handful of other key starters in the regular-season finale against Pittsburgh.

Optimists will frame this as part of Baltimore’s journey to its next Super Bowl title, recalling the heartbreak of the 2011 AFC Championship game and how the 2012 Ravens would go on to finish the job despite not achieving the same level of regular-season success. On the other hand, the 2006 Ravens lost at home to Indianapolis in the divisional round and regressed from a then-franchise-best 13-3 record to a 5-11 injury-plagued disaster in 2007.

Of the previous five NFL teams to secure a No. 1 seed and lose in the divisional round, two got to the Super Bowl the next year and lost, one fell in the divisional round again, another lost a wild-card playoff game, and the most recent — the 2016 Dallas Cowboys — failed to even reach the postseason the following year. The Denver Broncos (2012) would wait three years to win a Super Bowl while the Patriots (2010) wouldn’t win their next NFL championship for four more years after losing in the divisional round as No. 1 seeds. Those other three are still waiting for that redemptive Super Bowl title years later.

The Ravens indeed let a massive opportunity slip through their fingers, no matter how promising the future looks on paper.

The next 12 months will be a grind, for everyone from DeCosta and Harbaugh to Jackson and every other returning Raven who left the field in disappointment Saturday night. There are probably parallels you can draw with the infamous Super Bowl loser hangover except there being no January success from which Baltimore can draw after so much regular-season success.

Compartmentalizing and not giving into any thoughts of complacency or obsession about the postseason will be an unspoken challenge in the coming days, weeks, and months. As Harbaugh likes to say, you’re either getting better or you’re getting worse, a message he’ll surely convey over and over to his players from the moment they return to the team facility for the start of the offseason training program in April.

Fair or not, every shred of success next season will be met by a detractor saying, “That’s great, but what about January?” And there’s little the Ravens will really be able to say or do about that until next postseason — if all goes according to plan, of course.

Saturday’s defeat shouldn’t ruin what was the best regular season in franchise history. But much like the 2006 team that previously held that distinction and was much fun in its own right, these Ravens disappointed mightily in the postseason, the time when legacies are defined and feelings entrenched.

That’s just the hard truth.