Breathe in, breathe out . . . we’re alive.
An emotional rollercoaster subsided with the happiness and relief on Sunday afternoon, as the Ravens emerged from Tennessee with a 20-13 victory over the Titans. It’s the first time Baltimore has won a playoff game since 2014 and, perhaps more importantly, the first postseason win in the Lamar Jackson era.
There’s more than enough to unpack here, so let’s get into it.
1) Narratives = squashed
“Lamar Jackson can’t win a playoff game.”
“The Ravens can’t come from behind.”
“Derrick Henry owns the Ravens.”
What’s better than squashing one narrative? How about squashing three.
For the better part of the last year or so, these three recurring narratives have hung over the Ravens like a looming storm cloud. Almost every national conversation surrounding the Ravens has eventually circled back to this conversation.
Now, at long last, they can finally be put to bed. In defeating the Titans today, the Ravens overcame a 10-0 deficit in the first quarter, contained Derrick Henry in a huge way, and of course — Lamar Jackson won his first playoff game. More analysis on each of these will be dished below, but one thing is for sure . . .
The monkey is officially off the Ravens back, and it feels quite good.
2) Lamar Jackson exorcises the demons
For someone who just turned 24 years old days ago, Lamar Jackson has already established himself as one of the most polarizing players in the NFL.
For all of his accomplishments, accolades, and record-breaking numbers, doubters and critiques have continued to revert back to the some combination of the same notions listed in the previous paragraph: he “chokes” in the postseason, he can’t beat the Titans, and he can’t overcome a deficit.
After today’s win, Jackson can check of all of these boxes as complete.
It was hard not be nervous early in this game, as flashbacks to last year’s debacle in the Divisional Round slowly crept into play. Jackson attempted an off-target deep pass to Miles Boykin on the offense’s second drive that was promptly intercepted by Malcom Butler. In response, the Titans added a field goal to extend their lead to 10-0.
This felt eerie similar to 2019, when game script also slipped away from them early. However, this time around, Jackson showed no “deer in the headlights”, did not press or force the issue, and played within himself rather than become frantic.
Jackson shook off a 1-of-3 start in the air and chipped away at the Titans defense with his rushing ability. His 48-yard touchdown run in the second quarter, in which he avoided a sack on third down, evened the score and shifted momentum into the Ravens favor. From there on, Jackson continued to take what defense gave him and made smart decisions.
Between simple throws in the flats, a few long connections to Marquise Brown and Mark Andrews, and a handful of long rushes, Jackson put together a winning performance: 17-of-24, 179 passing yards, 16 rushes, and 136 rushing yards — the second highest rushing yardage total of his career.
3) How’s that for a return on investment?
After ceding 195 rushing yards to Derrick Henry in the postseason last year, the Ravens made beefing up the defensive line a priority. Nobody in the organization will outright say this was a direct response to Henry’s playoff performance, but there’s little doubting that it certainly played a role in the offseason strategy.
In trading for Calais Campbell and signing Derek Wolfe in free agency, the hope was that adding them alongside Brandon Williams on the defensive line would help the Ravens be better-prepared in a potential rematch with Henry and the Titans.
In the Titans’ Week 11 victory over the Ravens earlier this season, Henry rushed for over 130 yards but Campbell and Williams were inactive with injuries — so we had yet to see whether or not the Ravens strategy would be vindicated heading into Sunday’s rematch.
The results? Positive, to say the least.
The Ravens dominated Tennessee in the trenches. Campbell, Wolfe, and Williams closed off almost all gaps at the point of attack. Matthew Judon and Pernell McPhee stood out as well in setting the edge and sniffing out Henry behind the line of scrimmage.
McPhee’s juice and energy all afternoon were reminiscent of the early 2010s. Other guys like Jihad Ward and Malik Harrison made timely plays in their own right, too. It was a team effort and an excellent display of both toughness and discipline.
All in all, the Ravens limited Henry to just 40 yards on 18 carries. His longest run of the day gained only eight yards. The Titans were able to move the ball effectively despite Henry’s minimal impact in the first quarter but as the game progressed, their inability to get any momentum on the ground proved significant.
4) Finding the counter punch
Maybe the biggest reason that the Ravens faltered at this time last year was their inability to develop a counter attack. The Titans blitzed them early on both sides of the ball and the Ravens were unable to respond effectively. To a large degree, this fell on the shoulders of the coaching staff.
A similar development played out once again in this game. The Titans play-action passing game gave the Ravens defense fits in the first quarter. Defensively, Tennessee had early answers for Baltimore’s ground attack and Lamar Jackson’s designed keepers. Into the second, third, and fourth quarters, though, the Ravens finally displayed the counter punch that they needed to “finish.”
Both Greg Roman and “Wink” Martindale made key adjustments and dialed up effective game plans that saw the Ravens execute better on offense and defense, respectively.
Offensively, the Ravens recognized that Tennessee was all but abandoning the flats and played soft coverage underneath. As a result, Jackson made a handful of simple throws to the likes of Marquise Brown, Mark Andrews, and Pat Ricard. Baltimore took the low hanging fruit and began moving the ball more effectively as a result.
Additionally, the defensive strategy worked absolute wonders. The Ravens job on Henry as already referenced but it cannot be understated that Baltimore held this Titans team, which finished fourth in the NFL in scoring (30.4 PPG) and third in yards (396.4 YPG) on the season, completely in check after the first quarter.
Tennessee only mustered 209 total yards on the game, gained just 12 first downs, and converted on only 4-of-12 third down attempts. From the second quarter until the end of the game, their offensive possessions resulted in four punts, one field goal, and a late-game interception — courtesy of Marcus Peters — that sealed the Ravens victory.
5) “Hollywood” meets the moment
Marquise Brown’s sophomore season has been much-maligned, to say the least. He’s had a few big games and moments this year, such as the 44-yard touchdown reception against the Browns on MNF, but also a few no-shows and struggled with drops at times. As such, Brown has been at the receiving end of criticism from fans throughout the season.
And yes, wide receiver is (on paper, at least) maybe the weakest position group on the roster and no, Brown did not blossom into the top-tier wideout many were expecting him to be the season.
However, against the Titans in the Wild Card matchup, none of this mattered. Brown looked every bit the part of a No. 1 wide receiver and was the go-to offensive catalyst for the Ravens all afternoon. For the first time, perhaps ever, it felt like Greg Roman finally opted to utilize Brown in a featured role — and did they ever need it.
Brown was targeted nine times by Lamar Jackson and caught seven receptions for 109 yards, while also adding two rushes for 19 yards. Brown’s “runs” were really swing passes behind the line of scrimmage but on both of them, he turned nothing into something.
His 28-yard reception early in the second quarter helped put the Ravens into field goal range and finally get on the board. His 15-yard rush on next drive pushed the Ravens out of bad field position. In the fourth quarter, he caught three balls for 46 yards.
Brown was open often, made defenders miss in space, and gained yardage after the catch. In two playoff games against the Titans, “Hollywood” now has a combined 14 receptions for 230 receiving yards.