BALTIMORE — As unexpected as the Ravens’ 2019 season was, its conclusion was even more stunning.
Few predicted Baltimore to be the NFL’s best regular-season team. Virtually no one saw an MVP-caliber year on the horizon for second-year quarterback Lamar Jackson.
But both unlikely scenarios became reality, setting the No. 1-seeded Ravens as heavy favorites for Saturday’s AFC divisional round matchup at M&T Bank Stadium. A surprising season had an even more shocking ending as Baltimore suffered a 28-12 beatdown at the hands of the Titans, its first loss since September.
“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,” said outside linebacker Matthew Judon, a pending free agent who may have played his last game for the team that drafted him four years ago. “We were riding. We were rolling hot, and it hit us. Today was the end of our season, and it was the end of this locker room as we know it and this roster as we know it.”
The Ravens rode a franchise record 12-game win streak into the playoffs to secure the No. 1 seed for the first time in team history. An organization and a city that characterize themselves as underdogs entered the postseason as Super Bowl favorites.
“Very tough, very tough. Not to say that anybody looked past this, but the way we were on a roll, no one thought it would be over this quick. A very disappointing performance by the team. When our best was needed as a collective, we didn’t have it. But, that’s the nature of football,” defensive tackle Michael Pierce, another soon-to-be free agent, said. “They embarrassed us tonight. Anytime a team comes into your home stadium and takes it to you and breaks your 12-game winning streak, you’ve got to tip your hat to them and find a way to somewhat move on.”
The Ravens averaged an NFL-best 33.2 points per game, but managed only 12 against Tennessee. They ranked atop the league in fourth down conversion rate, but went 0-for-4 on attempts on Saturday. Baltimore was 8-of-8 when going for it on fourth-and-1 during the regular season, but was stopped short by the Titans both times it kept the offense on the field needing only a yard on fourth down.
Nothing made sense. Even the temperature at kickoff was 69 degrees in mid-January.
“There was definitely a point in the game where I was like, ‘What is going on?’ But I thought it was still within grasp,” cornerback Marlon Humphrey said. “Even down to the clock hitting zero, I was still like, ‘Is this really happening?’ One of the guys was like, ‘This is a dream. I am going to wake up tomorrow and it is going to be Saturday and it is going to be gameday.’
“That is kind of what it felt like, honestly, as crazy as that sounds. It just seemed like it was one big dream and it was not really happening.”
The minority to predict a Titans’ victory all seemed to offer the same justification: Derrick Henry.
The NFL’s leading rusher rumbled for 184 yards the previous weekend to lead Tennessee to an upset of the Patriots in New England. On Saturday, the 6-foot-3 power back gained 195 yards on the ground.
The Titans beat the NFL’s best rushing team at its own game, pounding and protecting the football.
In the third quarter, Henry actually threw a 3-yard touchdown pass to Corey Davis to put the game seemingly out of reach.
Players in the dejected Baltimore locker room reflected on the historic season and playoff heartbreak differently. Most noted the success of what was accomplished.
“This was the best regular season in franchise history. We have a ton of great talent here, a ton of character,” right guard Orlando Brown Jr. said. “We have a ton of guys that love working and are excited for another opportunity next year. Obviously, this is not how we wanted to end, but it happens. It’s football. It’s the playoffs.”
Baltimore set franchise records for wins, points, yards and touchdowns.
Said Willie Snead IV: “The best team in Baltimore Ravens’ history. We didn’t finish the job, but next year we’ll be ready to go.”
Humphrey had a harder time seeing the bright side.
“As losers, I guess. We just lost, so that is how I will remember it,” he said. “I think honestly the sad reality of it is this Ravens team, we have been here two years in a row, and we have lost. So, I think you have to look yourself in the mirror, and I think this team’s identity right now is get in the playoffs and choke. It is what it is. That is just the hard truth.”
The Ravens snapped a three-year playoff drought last season, but suffered a remarkably similar defeat in the wild card round to the Los Angeles Chargers. Jackson, then a rookie, had his worse showing of his young career.
Jackson took the league by storm in Year 2, setting an NFL record for rushing yards by a quarterback while also throwing for more touchdowns than any other passer. But despite his 19-3 regular-season record as a starting quarterback, critics will be quick to point to his 0-2 postseason mark.
The 23-year-old Jackson was critical of his own play, noting his three turnovers, but was still among the group to point to the positives.
“Fourteen and two, great team, a family-oriented team,” he said.
The record-setting regular season made the postseason loss tougher to swallow for safety Earl Thomas.
“It’s always tough in the playoffs, especially when you have a great team,” he said. “We just didn’t play our best ball today. Unfortunately, you can’t do that in the playoffs. You only get one shot.”
Head coach John Harbaugh faced questioning as to whether it was a mistake to rest several key starters for the regular-season finale with the AFC’s top seed already secured. Jackson, Thomas, Mark Ingram, Mark Andrews, Marshal Yanda, Ronnie Stanley and Brandon Williams had not played a game since Dec. 22. It would be difficult to argue that the Ravens weren’t rusty.
Harbaugh called the question “unanswerable,” but reiterated what he told his team following its final game of the year.
“I felt like this team was the best football team that it could be this year. With the group that we had, we made the most of us, becoming the best football team we could be,” he said. “We just weren’t that today, and that’s the disappointing thing. But in the big picture, I couldn’t be more proud of what they did every single day, how they came to work, how they made the most of their talents and abilities, played as hard as they possibly could, including today. We have to step back and take a look at that and understand that and see it for what it is.”
Follow Sean Grogan on Twitter: @Sean_CecilWhig