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5 takeaways from the Ravens gut-wrenching AFC Championship loss to the Chiefs

The team fell short of advancing to the Super Bowl in debilitating fashion.

AFC Championship - Kansas City Chiefs v Baltimore Ravens Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

The Baltimore Ravens 2023 season came to a disappointing end on Sunday in the AFC championship when they fell 17-10 to the Kansas City Chiefs at home. To have their deepest playoff run in 11 years and the first conference title game that Charm City has hosted in over 50 years end in such a deflating defeat will sting throughout the offseason, as it appeared this team was the best and most complete in franchise history.

The Ravens’ top-ranked defense recovered from a rocky start and got back to playing their dominant brand of football, pitching a shutout in the second half. Unfortunately, the same couldn’t be said for their counterparts on the other side of the ball as the offense picked the worst possible time to have their worst game of the year. With a trip to the Super Bowl on the line, the Ravens let fatal flaws from the past rear their ugly heads and cost them a golden opportunity to compete for a third Vince Lombardi trophy.

Below are some of the top takeaways from the Ravens’ sickening conference championship loss.

Turnovers doomed them in the end

Both teams had 11 drives but the Ravens outgained the Chiefs 336-319 on 16 fewer plays, averaged more yards per play (5.9-4.4), and Lamar Jackson passed for 25 more net yards than Patrick Mahomes on two fewer attempts (37-39) and threw the same amount of touchdowns. Ultimately this game was decided by turnovers, the visiting Chiefs committed none but came up with three takeaways including two that took points off the board for the Ravens late in the game as they were trying to claw their way out of a double-digit halftime deficit.

The first turnover of the game came on a strip sack of Jackson in the second quarter on the Ravens’ side of the field that turned out not to cost them points as their defense was able to force a turnover on downs on the ensuing possession.

After a scoreless third quarter, the second turnover that was perhaps the most deflating occurred on the first play of the fourth quarter. With the Ravens driving deep into the Chiefs’ red zone and just nine yards away from making it a one-score game with a touchdown, Jackson connected with standout rookie wide receiver Zay Flowers on what appeared to be a touchdown but resulted in touchback after he had the ball punched out at the one-yard line and recovered in the end zone by a defender.

As agonizing as that untimely Flowers’ first career fumble was, the game was still far from over and the Ravens had almost an entire quarter to mount a comeback. Their defense got them the ball back with over 10 and half minutes left to play and they put together another promising drive that was highlighted by a 39-yard catch and run by veteran wide receiver Nelson Agholor. That massive field-flipping play would amount to nothing as Jackson would be intercepted two plays later on an attempt to second-year tight end Isaiah Likely over the middle in the end zone. He was clearly interfered with but it was an ill-advised pass either way as there were three Chiefs in this immediate vicinity.

As was the case in each of the Ravens’ four losses in the regular season, turnovers and missed opportunities to put up points on offense cost them dearly in the end and can pointed to as the biggest difference in the final result. Losing the turnover battle isn’t always a death knell for teams but it can be extremely hard to overcome as has been the case with this team over the year and especially this season in particular.

“We had some opportunities out there. We’ve just got to take advantage of them,” Jackson said. “[We] can’t turn the ball over, fumble, [throw an] interception [or] stuff like that. That gave them opportunities to put points on the board and win the game. We get in that red zone, [and] it’s been our touchdown all season. We’ve just got to finish, and we didn’t do a good job on finishing. The defense did a wonderful job and held a great offense to 17 points. We’ve got to execute. We scored one touchdown, and that’s not like us. That was early on in the year. [There are] no excuses, though. We’ve got to take advantage.”

Lack of balance in the offensive plan off attack was baffling

Almost just as damaging and certainly far more perplexing than the turnovers committed by the Ravens’ offense was the imbalance in the play selection and personnel decisions by Offensive Coordinator Todd Monken. The Chiefs’ vaunted defense came into this game as one of the worst units at stopping the run per both EPA and DVOA while ranking among the elite in defending the pass. While the Ravens were able to move the ball and generate big plays through the air throughout the game, their complete and utter disregard for their own dominant rushing attack, which was the best in the league this past season, was truly flabbergasting.

Monken only called eight designed runs and their running backs combined for just six carries and 23 rushing yards between veterans Gus Edwards and Justice Hill, while four-time Pro Bowler Dalvin Cook didn’t get a single carry. Jackson led the team with 54 rushing yards but the majority of them came on scrambles that were originally called passing plays that broke down. To average 5.1 yards a carry as a team and only run the ball 16 times against a defense that was just gashed for 182 yards on the ground the week before to an inferior Buffalo Bills team was a borderline egregious form of coaching malpractice on the part of Monken.

Sadly, he isn’t the first Ravens offensive play-caller in recent years to refuse to lean on the rushing attack in big games despite the fact that it has been and remains the overwhelming strength of the offense since Jackson was inserted as the full-time starter midway through his rookie year in 2018. Monken’s predecessor Greg Roman was notorious for opening and sticking with pass-happy game plans and not relenting even if the ground game was working and they could still run their way back into a game they fell behind in by multiple scores.

After the game when asked about the lack of commitment to the run game, Harbaugh told reporters that “it was just that type of game” but it really wasn’t. Yes, the Chiefs were crowding the box at times but that is nothing that the Ravens haven’t seen and overcome before. Part of their offensive evolution under Monken that has been a strength this year is their ability to run the ball out of more spread formations, which would force the defense have to guard every blade of grass and not be able to devote as many bodies near the line of scrimmage.

Instead of playing to their own strength and attacking the Chiefs’ most glaring weakness, the Ravens did the exact opposite when they absolutely didn’t have to on their biggest stage to date. That highly questionable course of action and plan of attack played a huge part in costing them a chance to compete on the grandest stage for the ultimate prize.

Defense did more than enough to win

The game couldn’t have gotten off to a worse start for the Ravens Defensive Coordinator Mike Macdonald and his top-ranked unit as the Chiefs marched down the field on a pair of long 75-plus yard touchdown drives. However, from that point on in the second quarter, they were lights out after forcing a turnover on downs and would only allow a field goal the rest of the way and no points in the second half while forcing six punts on the Chiefs’ final seven possessions.

They were able to finally stop future Hall of Fame tight end Travis Kelce from gashing them and coming up with one incredibly clutch catch after the other, tackled better instead of trying to deliver big hits, and allowed minimal yards after the catch. Their pass rush eventually started to break through in the second half and finished with two sacks and eight hits on one of the hardest quarterbacks to sack in the entire league.

While they didn’t force any turnovers of their own, they didn’t let the defending Super Bowl champions breathe for the final two quarters, redeeming themselves for the uneven start. In the end, the offense just didn’t pull enough weight despite being given numerous chances after clutch stops by the defense. This was a truly special group that featured several breakout stars, established starters, and unheralded contributors who played a relentless and selfless style of football. Their tremendous success will be hard to replicate with so many key pieces slated to be free agents coming off of career years.

“Just having a group of truly unselfish dudes [who] don’t really care who gets the credit [and] all celebrate one another,” inside linebacker Roquan Smith said. “It’s hard to find that in football let alone in life, because most human beings [are] selfish in your own way, even though you may not know it. Just seeing how many selfless guys who were willing to put it all on the line for one another, it inspires you. That’s definitely the part that sucks for me [is] just knowing each and every guy how we all roll together [and] do whatever for each other. To just let ourselves down like that, it sucks.”

Lamar Jackson was far from the only culprit

The national media pundits who have doubted the soon-to-be two-time league MVP since before he came into the league will be coming out of the weeds and the woodwork this week to take their victory laps. After all, the three-time Pro Bowl certainly didn’t play to his usually dominant and highly efficient standard that had become the norm this season against the Chiefs on Sunday.

However, Jackson shouldn’t shoulder the entirety or even the brunt of the blame for the team’s latest shortcoming in the playoffs. His play-caller let him down by not putting him in the best position to succeed and abandoning the run. Flowers came up with several big plays but committed colossal blunders including the costly fumble and a bone-headed taunting penalty on the next drive that chopped 15 yards off his incredible 54-yard catch and run. The offensive line and pass protection unit as a whole struggled to pick up and handle the Chiefs blitzes and mere four-man fronts at key moments resulting in sacks, incompletions, and a turnover.

While he is certainly not without blame for this loss, having missed open targets at times high, low, or too far in front on a handful of deep shots, Jackson was still the only reason they had a chance to win this game late with some of the plays and poise he showed. This will be a painful learning lesson for him as an individual and a leader of men but if fans and media thought he was locked in throughout the 2023 campaign, he’ll be even more focused on ensuring he delivers on his draft day promise to bring a Super Bowl victory back to Baltimore in 2024.

“He’s had a great season,” Harbaugh said. “His performance today was all heart. He fought. He went out there and gave it everything he had, so I don’t think that’s anything that I’d be disappointed in.”

Officiating was horrendous but it shouldn’t have mattered

When Warren Sharp of Sharp Football Analysis published an article last week breaking down the discrepancy in how the officiating crew of NFL referee Shawn Smith makes calls in favor of the visiting team over the home team by a considerable margin, many ridiculed him. After watching what transpired at M&T Bank in several high-leverage moments on Sunday with a Super Bowl appearance on the line, he might have been on to something.

There was a bevy of blatant noncalls of clear and obvious defensive pass interference throughout the game where Ravens’ pass catchers were getting mugged at times. There were holds and blocks in the back committed by the Chiefs offensive linemen to buy Mahomes more time. Most atrocious of all were the personal fouls that were called against Baltimore defenders when being instigated by Kelce primarily but also others.

The final box score paints a pretty clear picture about just how one-sided the officiating was as the Ravens and Chiefs had the same amount of rushing first downs with five, Kansas City had just one more passing first down at 12-11 yet they finished with 22 total first downs to Baltimore’s 16. The discrepancies lay in the first downs gained by penalty of which the Chiefs had five and the Ravens had none.

All that being said, the Ravens defenders should’ve played with more discipline in the instances where tempers flared and when hitting Mahomes while or right after releasing the ball. They were the better team but did not play that way for the entire game on both sides of the ball. If they would’ve stayed true to themselves and played to their strengths, questionable officiating wouldn’t have even mattered.