By the time the Ravens lined up in victory formation to finish Sunday’s 20-13 win at Tennessee, they were finally back where they started 365 days ago.
As a top-shelf Super Bowl contender playing in the AFC divisional round.
Though as hot as any team in the NFL with a five-game winning streak down the stretch, the Ravens didn’t yet belong in that rarefied air with defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City and No. 2 seed Buffalo, who has lost only once since Week 6 and cleared its own postseason hurdle against Indianapolis on Saturday. In a similar way to how Brian Billick forbade the 2000 team from uttering the word “playoffs” until it’d officially clinched in mid-December, the wild-card Ravens needed to win a playoff game before any serious discussion of advancing further could take place. After all, only seven players suiting up Sunday had even been part of Baltimore’s last postseason win six years ago, and these Ravens hadn’t been the best team in football for three months like they were a year ago with a 14-2 record and 12-game winning streak, both franchise records.
After what had happened in the playoffs the last two years, they had to earn that right.
Breaking through against the same Titans that handed them the most disappointing loss in franchise history last January made it that much sweeter. Of course, it wasn’t looking all that promising after the Ravens trailed 10-0 late in the first quarter, a similar spot to what they endured a year ago when Tennessee jumped to a two-score lead in the first half.
At that point, you could forgive anyone on the Ravens sideline for thinking, “Here we go again.”
“Nobody even blinked. Nobody got down. We just kept playing,” said head coach John Harbaugh, who earned his NFL-record eighth road playoff win. “We knew it was going to be this play and this play and this play — that’s how the guys approached it. It’s a very simple approach.”
Simple in theory, but the Lamar Jackson-led Ravens had also never erased a 10-point deficit to win a game, something last year’s Chiefs did three times in the postseason on the way to the championship. Facing a third-and-7 from their own 28 on the final play of the first quarter, the Ravens were in danger of a third straight empty possession to begin the game. Every play impacts the ultimate sequence of events, so there’s no telling how the game might have played out had the Ravens punted the ball to give the Titans a chance to open up a three-score lead against a defense that had already been on the field for more than 10 minutes in the opening quarter.
Having thrown an ugly interception on the previous drive, Jackson escaped a free blitz and rolled to his right before hitting tight end Mark Andrews for a 17-yard sideline completion to move the chains.
Jackson’s best throw of the day was the catalyst for a long drive resulting in a 33-yard Justin Tucker field goal to both slow Baltimore’s heartbeat and allow the defense to catch its breath and regroup. It was nearly all Ravens after that as Jackson finished with 136 rushing yards — which included his spectacular 48-yard touchdown to tie the game on their next possession — and the defense held Tennessee to just one more field goal and 2,000-yard rusher Derrick Henry to a paltry 40 yards on 18 carries in the victory.
When cornerback Marcus Peters intercepted Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill after the two-minute warning to all but seal the victory, the Ravens danced on Tennessee’s midfield logo, a measure of revenge for the Titans’ antics at M&T Bank Stadium in the previous two meetings. Baltimore might as well have been dancing away the demons of the last two Januaries, however.
It was an inspiring performance from a team and a quarterback that had gone through so much in 2020, including a 1-4 stretch after their bye and a COVID-19 outbreak that nearly ruined the season. Jackson had heard much criticism – some fair and much of it not — after the failures of the last two postseasons, but he appropriately received the game ball in a jovial post-game locker room. Having led the Ravens to wins in 30 of his 37 regular-season starts since taking over midway through the 2018 season, the reigning NFL MVP had finally tasted postseason victory just days after his 24th birthday, a reminder of necessary perspective on such a special talent.
“I’m happy for myself, but I’m almost more happy for Lamar, you know?” two-time Pro Bowl cornerback Marlon Humphrey said. “It sucks to be in his position at times that when you lose, [the perception is] it’s all his fault. It’s nobody else’s fault. It wasn’t the defense’s fault; it’s always Lamar’s fault.”
Of course, the narrative will now shift from whether Jackson can lead his team to a playoff win or a double-digit comeback victory to whether he can win a Super Bowl. The Ravens will now travel to Buffalo to take on a red-hot team that’s won seven straight and been every bit as good as them down the stretch.
But Sunday’s win is the breakthrough that makes every task from this point forward less daunting. If Jackson and the Ravens have won a playoff game, they can certainly win another. If they’ve erased a 10-point deficit in January, they can no longer be counted out if they find themselves in an early hole. Even a potential trip to Arrowhead Stadium in two weeks doesn’t seem quite as scary now despite their history with the Chiefs.
Of course, the Ravens will need to take it one week at a time, one play at a time with the Bills looming on Saturday night. But they want to experience this feeling again next weekend.
“I’m going to tell the boys, ‘I’m not ready to go home,’” said 32-year-old outside linebacker Pernell McPhee, a member of Baltimore’s Super Bowl XLVII championship team eight years ago. “I enjoyed the victory, but at the end of the day, we’ve got bigger goals and bigger dreams.
“These moments right here are always going to be remembered, so why not make the most out of these moments?”