The tension racking the Ravens’ future will spring to life in stark detail next week. On Thursday, quarterback Lamar Jackson is expected to be honored at Las Vegas’ Resorts World Theatre with his second NFL Most Valuable Player award. Three nights later, Super Bowl LVIII will kick off at nearby Allegiant Stadium. The Ravens, the NFL’s best team for much of this season, will not be playing in it.
Perhaps that’s just life in the AFC, where Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes is still the NFL’s greatest headliner. Or maybe, more agonizingly, some great acts just aren’t ready for the bright lights. Kansas City’s run of playoff dominance — four Super Bowl appearances in the past five seasons — started in 2019 with one great Ravens team flopping in the divisional round and continued Sunday with another great Ravens team flopping in the AFC championship game.
With each postseason setback, Jackson seems more and more a victim of his regular-season success. Four years ago, on his way to earning unanimous MVP honors, he led the NFL in passing touchdowns and set the single-season record for rushing yards by a quarterback. But the Ravens, winners of 12 straight games, lost to the Tennessee Titans in their playoff opener at M&T Bank Stadium, 28-12. Jackson had three turnovers and one touchdown. The second-seeded Chiefs went on to win their first NFL championship in five decades.
On Sunday, Jackson stood on the cusp of his first Super Bowl trip, backed by a better defense, stronger weapons and a more empowering play caller than he’d ever had. Again, the Ravens fell short. Jackson had two turnovers and one touchdown in a 17-10 loss to Kansas City.
“That’s not like us,” Jackson said afterward, and it is that dissonance — how a quarterback with such transcendent talent can struggle so acutely in the Ravens’ biggest games — that will hang over the franchise’s next offseason, regular season and postseason, until the air is cleared.
“Definitely a fair criticism, because that’s what you see,” Harbaugh said Friday of the offense’s uncharacteristic playoff struggles at the Ravens’ season-ending news conference. “I mean, you look at it, it’s not the same. It wasn’t a 30-point win over a division leader, obviously. And that’s the result of it. It was the same team — it was the same guys. It’s the game plan that was devised against that particular team that day. But we didn’t play better than the team we played. They played better than us, you know? They had a better game plan. They executed their game plan better. They made plays. I mean, they made some great throws, some great catches, a few great runs. ...
“We didn’t come up with those great plays. That’s really the difference. So, in that sense, it’s not the same team. But, in the sense of the effort, the preparation, what we were bringing to the table schematically, all those things, it was exactly the same team. It was just a different result. And every single team in the league is going to have that feeling after losing in the playoffs. So I get it. I feel the same way. I mean, I’m telling you, I’m heartbroken, the fact that we didn’t win that game at home.”
Jackson entered these playoffs playing perhaps better than he ever had. Asked two weeks ago about his confidence level in lifting the offense to heights it hadn’t reached in previous seasons, he said: “Extremely confident.”
There was not a high bar to clear. In 2018, when he was a rookie, the Ravens didn’t score a touchdown until the fourth quarter of a 23-17 home loss to the Los Angeles Chargers in the wild-card round. Jackson averaged minus-0.33 expected points added per play, according to TruMedia, the fourth-worst performance among the 22 qualifying quarterbacks (at least 15 pass attempts) that postseason.
A year later, the Ravens again didn’t score a touchdown until the fourth quarter of the stunning loss to Tennessee. Jackson averaged minus-0.12 EPA per play, fourth lowest among the 20 qualifying performances that postseason.
In 2020, he followed a solid outing in a wild-card-round win against the Titans with a forgettable night against the Buffalo Bills. Before leaving the divisional-round game late in the third quarter with a concussion, Jackson had just 196 yards of combined offense. The Ravens’ best hope for a touchdown in the 17-3 road loss ended instead with a 101-yard pick six, Jackson’s first-ever red-zone interception. His minus-0.42 EPA per play was No. 22 among the 26 qualifying quarterback performances that postseason, another bottom-five showing.
Injuries kept Jackson from the playoffs in 2021 and 2022, but he returned last month as a different quarterback: better supported, more experienced, more aligned with first-year offensive coordinator Todd Monken. Jackson’s four-touchdown performance in the Ravens’ blowout win over the Houston Texans, despite an uneven first half, was by far the best of his playoff career (0.38 EPA per play).
Then came the regression against the Chiefs. Jackson averaged minus-0.28 EPA per play, fifth worst among the 24 qualifying quarterback performances of this postseason. EPA is a far-from-perfect stat — quarterbacks are punished for costly fumbles like wide receiver Zay Flowers’ turnover near the goal line in the fourth quarter — but Jackson did not need to be great to outshine Mahomes (minus-0.06 per play). He merely needed to be good enough.
On Friday, Harbaugh said there was “nobody better in this league” and “nobody better for the Baltimore Ravens” than Jackson. Asked about his playoff shortcomings, he pointed to the “big picture.”
“This is the first year in this offense,” Harbaugh said. “You take it as a whole, and each game you go back through each game, each part of it, and each part of it, and within that, each play within it. That’s how we evaluate it. So it’s a pretty deep metric. So success? Failure? Well, it depends on your criteria. In the National Football League, unless you don’t make the playoffs, your last game is not a success unless you win the Super Bowl. So you’ve got to understand that.
“So when you don’t win your last game — especially at home, AFC championship game, which is so rare and so hard to get to; it’s rare air. Then it’s like, well, is it a success? Is it a failure? Lamar Jackson is a phenomenal success. He’s a phenomenal success as a football player. He’s a phenomenal success as a person, as a leader, as a family man.”
Harbaugh compared the Ravens’ development of their offense around Jackson this offseason to a team building a car with input from its driver. Last year, when Jackson was unsigned and Monken was installing his offense, the Ravens were spinning their wheels. This year, Harbaugh said, the Ravens can “dig deeper with what we can give him.”
“This year, every day was a new day in the offense, right on through the last part of the season,” Harbaugh said. “Next year, it won’t be a new day every single day.”