Ravens left staring at familiar reality after another January loss

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Roquan Smith seemingly stared into the abyss in the aftermath of the Ravens’ 17-10 loss to Kansas City in Sunday’s AFC championship. 

The All-Pro linebacker was waiting his turn in the interview room as star quarterback Lamar Jackson finished answering questions from reporters, but the pained look on his face told the story no words could properly convey for an entire organization. With Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, and Terrell Suggs on hand for the first AFC title game played in Baltimore in 53 years, you couldn’t help but think back to that 2006 postseason loss to Peyton Manning and Indianapolis in which a vaunted defense held the explosive Colts offense to five field goals in a 15-6 home defeat in the divisional round. 

This was a far more complete Ravens team than that 2006 squad that had an aging Steve McNair at quarterback and an average offense. These 2023 Ravens were the best all-around team in the NFL with the expected league MVP at quarterback in the regular season. 

But legacies are defined in January, which is where the Jackson-era Ravens continue to fall short.

Close, but once again back to the drawing board, the solution less apparent than ever for John Harbaugh’s team as Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs advanced to the Super Bowl for the fourth time in five years. A conference that waited years to finally rid itself of Tom Brady and New England is now dealing with another dynasty in the making even as Kansas City appeared more ordinary in December than at any point since Mahomes arrived on the scene. 

There’s no real shame in losing to Mahomes and Chiefs head coach Andy Reid, but the sobering reality for the Ravens — and the rest of the AFC — is that the 28-year-old quarterback isn’t going anywhere. Ask Manning and Ben Roethlisberger — a Hall of Famer and a surefire future inductee — how different their legacies might have looked look if Brady had never existed or at least played most of his career in the NFC. That’s what Jackson and the Ravens face. 

That said, Mahomes wasn’t the biggest reason why the Ravens lost, which makes this loss hurt even more. 

If someone had told you Sunday morning that Baltimore would allow only 17 points and none in the second half, you would have all but guaranteed a victory and possibly even booked your trip to Las Vegas for Super Bowl LVIII. Instead, the entire offensive operation  — from Jackson’s poor play and coordinator Todd Monken’s baffling reluctance to run the ball against a porous rush defense to Zay Flowers’ fatal goal-line fumble — came up small when it mattered most. And while a Chiefs defense guided by longtime NFL coordinator Steve Spagnuolo deserves credit, the Ravens were hardly facing the 1985 Chicago Bears.  

Yes, an offense that had been cooking for weeks stumbled on the championship stage, leaving observers to conclude it’s the “same old Ravens.”  

“I’m not frustrated at all. I’m angry about losing,” said Jackson, who committed two turnovers and completed just 54% of his passes. “We were a game away from the Super Bowl. We’ve been waiting all this time, all these moments for an opportunity like this, and we fell short. 

“I feel like our team is going to build. This offseason, we’re going to get right, get better, grind, and try to be in this position again, but on the other side of victory.” 

But what really constitutes the Ravens getting “right” and “better” at this point? Certainly nothing we’ll be able to observe in the regular season anyway. 

Unlike the aftermath of previous playoff losses when it was clear that Jackson and Baltimore still had substantial growing to do in the passing game, this team appeared ripe to get to a Super Bowl, especially with the Chiefs and Buffalo down and Cincinnati — the only team other than the Brady-led Patriots to beat Mahomes in an AFC title game — losing Joe Burrow to a season-ending injury in November. We’ll soon learn whether defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald becomes the new head coach in Seattle or Washington, but even if he stays, roster construction will be challenging with a slew of pending free agents and only so many salary cap dollars to go around given the reality of Jackson’s contract. Baltimore not picking until 30th in this year’s draft won’t help matters. 

If not now, then when?

What will it finally take for the Ravens to get over the hump? 

“When you just think about how hard it is to make it back to this position, knowing all the adversity, the obstacles that you have to go through to get to this point, it sucks,” said Smith, speaking through watery eyes after Sunday’s loss. “When you really think about it, it’s tough because there’s a lot of things that have to go your way in order for you to get here. And for us busting our tails day in and day out since OTAs with the coaches [and] with each other having the attendance we had and just knowing how each and every person cared about one another, it sucks.

“It’s definitely going to add fuel in the offseason as well as the season coming up next year.”

That the Ravens made the critical mistakes they did Sunday and lost by just seven points reinforces that they are close. They did take a step forward this January with Jackson playing the best postseason game of his career against Houston and Baltimore advancing to the AFC title game for the first time in 11 years. As long as their All-Pro quarterback is healthy and upright, the Ravens have proven they’ll be in the mix, which should dismiss any notions about a proverbial championship window closing. 

But joining the Bills — who are 0-3 against Mahomes in January — wasn’t the goal after such a sensational regular season. Mahomes now owns twice as many Super Bowl appearances (four) as Jackson has playoff wins (two), reminding what the Ravens and the rest of the AFC are up against. 

It’s going to be a long road back to January with regular-season success and accolades feeling less gratifying by the year. Especially after that big second half against the Texans when it felt like the 2019 playoff demons had finally been exorcised, this year was supposed to be different with these Ravens having the chance to go down as the best team in franchise history. Instead, they’ll be remembered as the best Baltimore squad not to make a Super Bowl. 

That’s not the distinction anyone wanted. Just ask those 2006 and 2019 teams remembered for what they couldn’t accomplish in January. 

But it’s the reality the Ravens were left staring at on Sunday night. 

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