Sometimes the more you want it, the harder it is to grasp.
You can’t question that Zay Flowers had tunnel vision on that pivotal fourth-quarter drive — wanted it even more because of the taunting penalty that had hurt the team moments before.
But single-minded desire can cost dearly. It can cost you everything.
Instead of tucking the ball, Flowers reached out with it — with two hands as the Ravens teach, but a vulnerable position nonetheless. His eagerness to make the play was what wound up turning a potential triumph into disaster, as L’Jarius Sneed swatted it from his hands inches from the end zone, sending all the hopes and dreams of the Baltimore Ravens spiraling away with it.
“I wanted to win,” the downtrodden rookie said afterward in a locker room that emptied quickly. “That’s it.”
It wasn’t the only moment that could have changed everything for the Ravens in their 17-10 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC championship, but it’s certainly the one we’ll remember — and most emblematic of everything that went wrong for an offense that saved one of its worst performances for its biggest game.
Desire and desperation were what drove Lamar Jackson, against all good judgment, to target Isaiah Likely in triple coverage, hoping for a pass interference call to bail him out. Desire and desperation must have factored into offensive coordinator Todd Monken’s decision to abandon the run quickly, even though it was known that run defense is one of Kansas City’s chief weaknesses. All the motivation to win in the world means little if you can’t use it to your advantage — especially if it detours you from the path that would lead to winning.
Desire can be the force that pushes you over the line. Or it can be what keeps you from making it.
It was clear to see that the Chiefs, two-time champions in the Patrick Mahomes era, definitely wanted victory. But perhaps experience helped them channel it, to mold it into effective game plans and stellar plays.
You could tell desire was a part of how Mahomes managed to stay upright on a wild completion to Travis Kelce of just 10 yards. The quarterback ran more than twice that distance scrambling around the backfield to keep the play alive for nine seconds before finding Kelce, who dove with an athleticism belying his 34 years.
Jackson had one of those highlights of his own in the first quarter, ducking a sack and airing it out 30 yards to Flowers for a touchdown that seemed to portend a shootout in the making. If the Ravens had won, it’s the kind of highlight that would have been replayed in slow motion, glorious NFL Films style throughout Baltimore, highlighting the precise qualities that make Jackson a special player.
But despite that touchdown — and an extreme NFL rarity in which he completed a 13-yard pass to himself — Jackson more often looked like the quarterback his detractors say he is. He struggled with the blitz early, just as he did a week before against the Texans, and held the ball on plays when a quick decision could have netted Baltimore positive gains, albeit conservative ones.
The discourse about Jackson will be deafening in the coming days, but the loudest fact is this. Through six seasons, he has just two playoff wins. No one questions how much he wants to win — “I’ve never seen somebody so locked in,” Odell Beckham Jr. said — but for now he’s just another great quarterback who can’t beat Mahomes when it counts the most.
The desire has to translate to postseason wins for Jackson. His legacy rests on it.
The Chiefs have hunger, but they know what it takes to get to the feast. At times, they seemed to play directly to the Ravens’ edginess, no one more than Kelce with a pregame toss of Justin Tucker’s helmet, and then getting into Roquan Smith’s face, successfully drawing a needless penalty from Kyle Van Noy.
Hunger can lead to desperation, but the Chiefs know well how not to cross that line.
It speaks volumes that the Chiefs had fewer total yards than the Ravens (286 to 307), but Kansas City made the most of its opportunities — a difference that Baltimore will be ruminating on all offseason. When asked which trait of the Chiefs he would like to emulate on his own team, Jackson’s answer was refreshingly straightforward.
“No turnovers, you know?” he said. “They played the game basically perfect. They put points on the board. I feel like, if we didn’t turn the ball over, we had a shot.”
The Ravens had built a sense of confidence that they would succeed where previous teams had failed thanks to big regular-season wins. They blew out Detroit and San Francisco, the two NFC teams remaining in the playoffs, and showed the ability to structure great game plans on both sides of the ball.
But the closer you get to the dream, the more mistakes cost you. The Ravens were at the doorstep of the Super Bowl but literally fumbled their chances away.
It’s so hard to get to the conference championship, an uncomfortable truth that coach John Harbaugh and Jackson unfortunately downplayed. Harbaugh touted the accomplishments of his team in the games before this one, his appreciative tone clashing with the reality of a letdown performance. Jackson acknowledged he was “angry” and “mad” about the result, but he added, “we just gotta finish next time.”
The reality is that no “next time” is guaranteed. It takes a lot to play as well as the Ravens did, to earn the No. 1 seed and get to the penultimate game. It took a second MVP season from Jackson, a historic defense that torched tough opponents, and a fortunate salary cap situation that will only get tougher to manipulate as Jackson’s deal takes up a larger slice in the years to come.
It was 11 years between AFC championships for the Ravens — 53 years between Baltimore home games — and with many players in the air for next season, along with Baltimore’s ace defensive coordinator, the franchise may well have to do more with less next fall.
The Ravens understand this whether they say so or not, but it stood out how much Roquan Smith let the disappointment show. The hunger he entered the game with — that helped him rack up 16 tackles, twice as many as any Chief — ultimately left him feeling hollow with no more games left. His eyes were glassy and shimmering, seemingly holding back tears.
He acknowledged he was pained to think of this special team, with veterans such as Jadeveon Clowney who hadn’t come this close to the top in decadelong careers, wouldn’t get the chance to play on football’s biggest stage. Smith has played six years himself, and the wait continues.
“You just think about how hard it is to make it back to this position, knowing all that adversity, obstacles you have to go through to get to this point,” he said. “It sucks. You really think about it, it’s tough, because there’s a lot that has to go your way for you to get here.”
All the Ravens acknowledged they’d be spending the intervening months thinking hard about what he and the Ravens want to do better.
“Our team, we’re gonna build,” Jackson said. “This offense is gonna get better, get right, grind, and try to end up in this position again but on the other side. A victory.”
But even one more year is a long time to live with this awful yearning eating you up inside.