OWINGS MILLS, Md. — This was always going to be the longest offseason for the Ravens after “the hard truth” of their crushing playoff loss to Tennessee last January.
Shaking off that kind of defeat is easier said than done when you were the consensus best team in the NFL with a 14-2 record, a record-setting offense, and transcendent league MVP Lamar Jackson at quarterback. The stars had seemingly aligned with good health and a 12-game winning streak to clinch the AFC’s top seed and home-field advantage through the postseason, but three months of domination vanished in three hours against the Titans, leaving the Ravens to ponder what had happened.
Second-year wide receiver and close friend Marquise Brown recalls talking with Jackson that night about what they “could have done or what should have happened” for a different outcome.
“We knew that the next thing we needed to do was focus on next year and what we could do to improve to be 1-0 each week,” Brown said. “That’s been his mindset. It’s like, we have to win each week — each week — and that goes into the playoffs. You can’t look over anybody [or] look over a game. You have to take each week seriously and win each week.”
Of course, one day and one week at a time took on a much different meaning for the Ravens and the rest of the world with the coronavirus pandemic, which closed the Owings Mills training facility for months and limited the spring workout program to Zoom meetings and remote work. Baltimore players itching to get back to work and put the end of last season behind them couldn’t begin congregating until late July, instead working out individually in various parts of the country.
With COVID-19 testing and protocols ongoing, the Ravens finally take the field Sunday to begin their 25th season in Baltimore without any fans gathered at M&T Bank Stadium, another wrinkle in this unprecedented season.
“This year is definitely so unique,” said veteran newcomer Calais Campbell, noting how long it’s felt since last playing a game after no preseason action. “All the preparation to get to this point — you’re not even sure if it’s going to happen. Here we are, and we’re just trying to lock in and find a way to get off to a fast start.”
The Ravens will have officially had eight months and two days to move on from that 28-12 loss to the Titans, knowing expectations are only greater this time around. Perhaps they should look no further than defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City for inspiration.
After falling short as the AFC’s No. 1 seed in the conference championship game a year earlier, the Chiefs found 2019 to be a bumpy road. Andy Reid’s team dealt with more health concerns, including a knee injury that sidelined 2018 league MVP Patrick Mahomes for nearly three full games. Kansas City scored 20 fewer offensive touchdowns than the year before when the offense was otherworldly. And despite facing double-digit deficits in all three postseason games, the Chiefs still found a way to win their first Super Bowl in 50 years.
History suggests Baltimore won’t match its 58 offensive touchdowns from last year, let alone break the single-season rushing record again. The Ravens probably aren’t going 14-2 again, but a deep and talented roster remains perfectly positioned to win a Super Bowl, even if Jackson doesn’t lead the league in touchdown passes or become the fifth man to win back-to-back NFL MVP awards.
Asked Wednesday about the previous two MVPs — Tom Brady in 2017 and Mahomes in 2018 — winning the Super Bowl the following year, Jackson simply replied, “Hopefully, the third one will be me.” Losses in each of his first two career playoff games provide ammunition for his lingering critics, but doubting Jackson after the dramatic improvement shown in his first full season as a starter still feels unwise.
“He’s going to continue to get better,” running back Mark Ingram said. “He’s going to continue to be more confident in his abilities within the offense — knowing the offense, knowing the ins and outs, the adjustments within the offense. He’s just continuing to grow. It’s special to be able to see it because I feel like he’s a million times ahead of where he was at this point last year.”
The reality is Jackson and the Ravens will now be judged solely by what happens in January, but there’s much work to be done over the next 17 weeks just to have that opportunity, which is why Cleveland is an appropriate Week 1 opponent. The Browns don’t offer the same revenge quotient as the Titans or Chiefs, but their Week 4 beatdown of the Ravens in Baltimore last season serves as a reminder for John Harbaugh’s team not to look ahead or take any opponent lightly.
That sentiment has been conveyed by the 34-year-old Campbell, a five-time Pro Bowl defensive end who went to a Super Bowl as a rookie with Arizona in 2008 and hasn’t been back since. He accepted a trade this offseason to play for a revamped Ravens defense because of the perceived chance to win a championship.
“The biggest thing is staying in the moment. You can’t win the Super Bowl today,” Campbell said last month. “I don’t care how good you are in August. You’ve got to go through the process. You can’t even win the first game today.”
The road to January redemption remains long with no guarantee of a regular-season ride as smooth as last year, but the Ravens are glad to finally reach that first game.