Catastrophe

Every NFL team has “burn the tape” games. The games where the only positive takeaway is that the game is over. 

But not every team has a “burn the tape” game in the playoffs. Not every team has a “burn the tape” game after winning 12 straight games and clinching the one-seed. Not every team has a “burn the tape game” after breaking record after record and starting an MVP candidate at quarterback. 

Not every team has a “burn the tape” game at home, in the second round of the playoffs, against a team with five fewer regular season wins and one that slipped into the playoffs by a margin of inches. 

Unfortunately for the 2019 Baltimore Ravens and their fanbase, they had a “burn the tape” game when it mattered most. The Ravens were upset convincingly at home, 28-12, against the sixth-seeded Tennessee Titans in what will go down as one of the most shocking upsets of the century.

Make no mistake, the Titans are good and gave reason for the Ravens to fear their arrival to M&T Bank Stadium. Heading into this weekend, I knew that the Titans…

  • Play great teams well, but lose to some mediocre teams (not many of the latter are in the playoffs)
  • Have one of the best coaches in football in Mike Vrabel
  • Have the league’s most menacing rusher, Derrick Henry, who had the potential to inflict the damage on the Ravens’ D that Cleveland’s Nick Chubb did early in the season
  • Have a ton of momentum heading into the game, and…
  • Beat the Patriots in Foxborough last week

But the Ravens seemed infallible. One ESPN article pinned down the Ravens’ weakness as… their punting. No team had beaten the Ravens since Week 4, and many playoff teams (like the Patriots, Seahawks, and Texans) hadn’t come anywhere close. Baltimore’s rushing attack was the best in league history with the most prolific rushing quarterback in NFL history in Lamar Jackson, plus three other more-than-capable options. Jackson had just earned an All-Pro selection as the best quarterback in football. And the Ravens, under coach John Harbaugh, had deservedly earned a reputation as a brilliant playoff football team. 

What ensued defied explanation. The Titans didn’t score on their opening drive, but following a Mark Andrews dropped pass that was intercepted by Tennessee’s Kevin Byard, the Titans seized momentum and soon jumped out to a 14-0 lead. The Ravens cut it to 14-6 by halftime, but two more Tennessee touchdowns pushed it to an insurmountable 28-6 lead. 

The box score indicated an even greater beatdown than the 28-12 final suggests. Henry ran for an incredible 195 yards on 6.5 yards per carry, allowing quarterback Ryan Tannehill to only attempt 14 passes. On the flipside, Baltimore’s unstoppable force of an offense suffered three turnovers, six dropped passes and finished 0 for 4 on 4th downs. To give you an idea of how bizarrely awful the game was: Lamar Jackson was flagged for a horse-collar tackle, the butt cheek of the Titans’ Johnnu Smith gave Tennessee its first score, Henry (the running back) threw a touchdown, Tannehill (the quarterback) ran for a touchdown and Jackson threw 59 times. 

The embarrassing rout took a lot of things to go wrong on Baltimore’s side and a lot to go right for Tennessee. Running back Mark Ingram, who has provided the thunder to go with Jackson’s lightning in the ground game this season, entered the game injured and accumulated just 22 yards on six carries, and backup Gus Edwards ran three times. With that, the Ravens’ offensive style was gone, and despite Jackson rushing for an impressive 143 yards on the ground, he also had to throw an insane 59 times to compensate. The receivers also didn’t do Jackson any favors, dropping third down conversions, touchdowns, crunch time plays and even tipping the ball up to Tennessee defenders. Even the MVP Jackson couldn’t overcome the absence of a supporting cast, though he threw another terrible interception after Andrews’ drop and lost a crucial fumble in a three-turnover night. 

An NFL team playing a D-minus game can’t expect to win a football game, let alone a playoff one, and the Titans took advantage. Without much help in the scoring department, the Ravens’ defense was left at the mercy of Derrick Henry and the Titans’ offensive line. The unit kept the Ravens in the game — the team was down only 14-6 at halftime and limited the damage after multiple turnovers and fourth-down misses. But the Ravens had no answer for Henry, who looked much like how the Ravens had looked all season — unstoppable. Save for automatic kicker Justin Tucker, there was nary a soul on the Ravens sideline that could consider himself not responsible for the embarrassment. Edgar Allen Poe couldn’t have written a tale so bleak.

The game was a nightmare. I feared the Titans more than the typical six seed, but to see my team come apart at the seams in primetime in the playoffs, to the uninvited guest of the NFL playoff bracket? I came into the game hyped for a blowout, only to spend the second half of the game buried under a Gatorade towel in a tight theater with a dozen guys more than happy to see anarchy prevail. 2019 was our year to win the Super Bowl, and we didn’t even get past the first game. It felt wrong.

I’m no stranger to postseason heartbreak. The last 1 seed to lose in the divisional round? The Cowboys in 2016. I’ve also lived through the Dez Bryant no-catch in the 2014 divisional round, the Billy Cundiff wide-left missed kick in the 2011 AFC Championship, the 34-3 shellacking of the Cowboys by the Minnesota Vikings (I cried a lot after that one), the double-comeback collapse against the Patriots in 2014, and a pair of defeats to the Ravens’ archrivals from Pittsburgh. 

I’m older now and didn’t cry after the clock hit zero, and it wasn’t as bad as the Bryant catch or the Cundiff miss. But man, this hurts. The result doesn’t do justice to the Ravens’ season, and will render Baltimore’s 2019 campaign as a footnote in the record books. I’ve been crushed when the Ravens or Cowboys almost pull off an upset, but to lose to a six seed, at home, in front of almost a dozen friends, stunk. This game just wasn’t the Baltimore Ravens I know.

Perhaps that is the greatest endorsement I can give to them. The Ravens, both on the field and in their organization, are competitive and functional every year and show up when the lights shine brightest. The reason that people, myself included, are so shocked at the defeat is that Baltimore was so dominant this season and the blowout is so uncharacteristic and atypical of how they operate. That blueprint has made them competitive every year since I’ve been a fan, and puts them in arguably the best position of any team in the league going into 2020. It’s not much consolation hours after a loss I can’t wrap my mind around. But it could be worse. 

The Ravens’ premature exit from the playoffs was one of the most agonizing games I’ve ever experienced, and it’s a shame so good a team is done so soon. I will survive. The Ravens will survive.

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