BALTIMORE — The Ravens just picked the wrong day to have a bad game.
If they had played as poorly as they did Saturday night against the Cincinnati Bengals or the Washington Redskins, they might have won, but instead they lost, 28-12, to the Tennessee Titans in the AFC divisional round.
In the days since the train wreck, there has been a lot of blame, most of it directed at coach John Harbaugh and his staff.
I can’t defend Harbaugh or the decision by his offensive coordinator, Greg Roman, to switch the Ravens from a running team to the pass-happy San Diego Chargers of the 1980s.
The Ravens were clearly outcoached.
But there is more to the Ravens’ defeat than just coaching errors. In sports, sometimes the best team doesn’t always win a one-game playoff or a championship series. For those of us old enough to remember, we can go back to 1969, when the New York Jets upset the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III, or when the New York Mets beat the Orioles in the 1969 World Series, four games to one.
In the Colts’ loss to the Jets, Baltimore was favored by 18 points, but New York pulled off what many still consider the greatest upset in NFL history. The Ravens entered Saturday’s game as the most balanced team in the league and were favored by as many as 10 points by some sportsbooks.
And they fell apart in the great meltdown.
Did history repeat itself nearly 50 years later?
By midday Sunday, both Harbaugh and Roman had to be asking themselves why they had abandoned the run so quickly. The Ravens had the best rushing attack in league history, yet halfbacks Mark Ingram II and Gus Edwards carried the ball a combined nine times for 42 yards.
Ingram had a calf injury and his contributions were going to be limited, but Edwards gained 19 yards on his first carry. Then, poof, he disappeared. The Ravens defended him better than the Titans.
I’ve seen this before. Roman did the same thing earlier in the year once the Ravens fell behind against the Kansas City Chiefs. It was clear that the Ravens were going to go pass-happy to open the third quarter Saturday despite only trailing 14-6 at halftime. In the second half, quarterback Lamar Jackson threw 37 passes compared with 22 in the first.
We can blame Roman, but Harbaugh is just as guilty. It’s his team and he could have ordered Roman to stop tossing the ball all over M&T Bank Stadium. Worse yet, Harbaugh was in a similar situation a year ago and waited too long to turn Jackson loose or insert quarterback Joe Flacco in a wild-card loss to the Los Angeles Chargers.
Harbaugh also decided to take a gamble on a fourth-and-1 at the Ravens’ 45 to open the second quarter, and that was terrible. The Ravens got stuffed and the Titans scored on a 45-yard touchdown pass on the next play.
I understand the Ravens’ willingness to go for it, but this was a playoff game. The dynamics change. These were the Titans, not the Browns. The Ravens were inside their own territory and only trailed 7-0.
The logic made sense. The Ravens were looking for a spark and had converted on 17 of 24 fourth-down situations during the regular season, the best rate in the NFL.
Saturday, though, just wasn’t their day.
Roman should have kept running the ball because that gave the Ravens their best chance of winning, but I’m not sure that would have worked, either. The Ravens’ offensive line played well all season long, but they got bullied Saturday.
The Ravens got stuffed on two fourth-and-1 situations. The Titans just go lower and at times knocked the Ravens back off the line of scrimmage.
That’s not a coaching issue. That’s a pride and integrity issue from within each offensive lineman. Also, give the Titans credit. Rashaan Evans and David Long Jr. were the fastest inside linebackers I had seen all season, and safeties Kenny Vaccaro and Kevin Byard forced Jackson to throw outside the numbers, which isn’t his strength.
The Ravens’ defense got bullied, too. All season the strength of the front seven had been tackles Brandon Williams, Michael Pierce and Domata Peko Sr. But they were on roller skates Saturday, and the inside linebackers haven’t been physical all year.
That’s not coaching. That’s a butt-whipping.
Going into the game, Tennessee had the reputation of being a play-action team, yet cornerbacks Marcus Peters and Marlon Humphrey and safety Chuck Clark got caught peeping in the backfield and gave up touchdowns as a result.
That onus goes on the players’ as well.
Jackson’s performance, though, was interesting. The pressure might have gotten to him, especially after losing in the wild-card round last season.
When the Chiefs fell behind 24-0 to the Houston Texans on Sunday, Kansas City quarterback Patrick Mahomes was on the sideline firing up his teammates and being a cheerleader.
Jackson had played that role so many times this season, but not Saturday. Clearly, he couldn’t get over his mistakes. He threw high and held on to the ball too long at times and really never showed explosiveness as a runner until the second half.
And he didn’t get any help from his receivers, who dropped at least five passes, or his top target, tight end Mark Andrews, who was clearly bothered by an ankle injury.
The Ravens had 15 turnovers in the regular season, tied for the third fewest in the NFL, but committed three Saturday, two of which the Titans turned into touchdowns on their ensuing drive.
Over at the Castle, the Ravens will be looking over game film and wondering if the long layoff hurt them. They’ll be second-guessing each other, as they should, and Harbaugh has to wonder why his teams have been so flat in the past two playoff games.
If the Ravens played the Titans five times, they’d probably beat them in four. They just picked the wrong day to have a bad game, the first time in nearly three months.
They should have played on a Sunday.