This was how Lamar Jackson wanted it. A season, a game, a drive, a Super Bowl dream living or dying on his special right arm. This was the year he’d grown up as a passer, had evolved, stepping out of Greg Roman’s medieval era and into Todd Monken’s modern world. Jackson will win his second NFL Most Valuable Player award next month not because he is one of the league’s best runners — though he still very much is — but because he is also one of the league’s best passers.
But he is not all the way there, not yet. Because this was not how Lamar Jackson wanted it to end: one Ravens touchdown in his first AFC championship game, an interception into triple coverage on their penultimate drive, a needless throwaway on the last drop-back of their last possession, a somber postgame march into the tunnel at M&T Bank Stadium, his season over.
“I’m not frustrated at all,” Jackson said after the Ravens’ 17-10 loss Sunday to the Kansas City Chiefs, who advanced to their fourth Super Bowl in five seasons. “I’m angry about losing. 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, but I feel like our team is going to build.”
Jackson will get better, but his Ravens teams might not. That is what made the end Sunday so sudden, so jarring. If ever there were a postseason for Jackson to break through, it was this one. By some metrics, the Ravens had entered the NFL’s final four as one of the league’s most complete teams in decades. Elite defense. Great special teams. A coveted, innovative coaching staff. Home-field advantage. Enviable health. The talismanic, irrepressible Jackson. What else could a team playing Patrick Mahomes want?
Plenty more, as it turned out. More from the defense, which, before it shut out Kansas City in the second half and held the Chiefs to their fourth-lowest yards per play (4.4) in the Mahomes era, allowed touchdowns on their opening two drives, tilting the game irrevocably on its axis.
More from offensive coordinator Todd Monken, who called 11 run plays for his elite rushing attack against a Kansas City run defense ranked among the NFL’s worst, 10 fewer than the fewest of any playoff game in the Jackson era.
More from wide receiver Zay Flowers, whose fumble in the fourth quarter cost the Ravens a touchdown and spoiled his otherwise splendid afternoon. More from the veterans who cost the Ravens with silly 15-yard penalties, adding to an eight-flag, 95-yard pile.
And, yes, more from Jackson. A lot more. He will end this, his sixth and most impressive NFL season yet, with just one impressive half in two playoff games. He finished Sunday’s loss with 272 passing yards and a touchdown, plus a team-high eight carries for 54 yards. But it was an altogether wasteful performance. He averaged minus-0.27 expected points added per drop-back, according to TruMedia, the second lowest of his season. (The only game in which he was worse: the Week 5 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers, the only other game he started in which the offense was held to fewer than 19 points.)
Jackson’s highs Sunday were intoxicating, as they so often are. There are only so many able-bodied people in the world who could even dream of doing what he did in the first quarter, slinging outside linebacker Leo Chenal off his shoulders like a backpack on a would-be sack before relocating and finding Flowers on a 30-yard touchdown. There are even fewer people who would turn a deflected pass at the line of scrimmage into a 13-yard catch-and-run, Jackson running under the tumbling ball as if he were Cedric Mullins.
“If it was any of the other 31 quarterbacks, I might have got that interception,” Chiefs safety Justin Reid said. “But Lamar is such a special athlete, he was able to go make a play.”
Jackson’s lows, though — those can be spirit-crushing, head-scratching, season-ending lows. In 2019 (minus-0.07 EPA per drop-back), he threw two interceptions and lost a fumble in a divisional-round loss to the Tennessee Titans, who’d come to Baltimore as double-digit underdogs. In 2020 (minus-0.45 EPA per drop-back), he threw a pick six, the first red-zone interception of his career, in another divisional-round loss to a Buffalo Bills team that scored just one other touchdown all game. The Ravens scored none.
On Sunday, against a talented, aggressive Chiefs defense, all of Jackson’s worst tendencies seemed to surface. Midway through the second quarter, he was strip-sacked by defensive end Charles Omenihu after holding on to the ball for about 4.5 seconds, an eternity for a play-action drop-back, and drifting about 10 yards behind the line of scrimmage, an unwelcome imposition for any offensive line. Jackson finished the season with seven fumbles, including in the playoffs, tied for the most in the NFL.
Late in the second quarter, on third-and-4, Jackson missed running back Justice Hill in the flat on a potential catch-and-run first down. On came the Ravens’ punt team for the third time. Jackson, whose mechanics tend to suffer when throwing short, went 4-for-9 for 33 yards on passes behind the line of scrimmage, according to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats. Mahomes went 13-for-13 for 43 yards in the same neighborhood.
Five minutes into the fourth quarter, Jackson overthrew wide receiver Rashod Bateman, who had a step on Chiefs cornerback Jaylen Watson on a vertical route. Earlier, Jackson had also overcooked a deep shot to wide receiver Nelson Agholor, open on a slot fade. Jackson went 2-for-7 on passes of at least 20 air yards, according to NGS, and for the season finished 19-for-62 (30.6%), well below the league average (36.3%).
Jackson’s worst decision Sunday also had the misfortune of having the worst possible timing. The Ravens had opened their fourth quarter with a goal-line fumble by Flowers, who had the ball punched out by cornerback L’Jarius Sneed and recovered in the end zone by cornerback Trent McDuffie.
But, after a Chiefs three-and-out — the third the Ravens forced in the second half — Jackson had new life, the team trailing 17-7. On second-and-10 at Kansas City’s 25, he dropped back and spotted tight end Isaiah Likely running down the seam, a step on safety Chamarri Conner. What Jackson did not see was Deon Bush, the other deep safety and the third defender in Likely’s way. Bush stepped in front of Jackson’s pass for an easy interception, the eighth straight Ravens drive to end without a score.
“I just tried to let him turn around and make a play,” said Jackson, who, if he’d waited a beat, could’ve hit wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr., coming open across the middle, or Hill, leaking out of the backfield. “I thought it was going to be a [pass interference], but it is what it is. The safety made a great play and made an interception.”
The Ravens’ final possession ended with a 43-yard field goal by kicker Justin Tucker, but even that laid bare the offense’s shortcomings. The drive started with a sack by defensive end George Karlaftis, the Chiefs’ fourth of the day, and ended with Jackson staring through Likely, open at the first-down marker, on a third-and-5 play that turned into a sideline heave to no one in particular.
From there, all Jackson could do was hope that the Ravens’ defense had one more stop in them. They did not. Mahomes’ 32-yard completion to wide receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling on third-and-9 sent the thousands of fans who had paid thousands of dollars to watch the city’s first conference championship game in over five decades to the exits, another magical season cut short at home.
“I told [Jackson] to stand up tall,” coach John Harbaugh said. “He’s had a great season. 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.”
Afterward, the finality of the season did not seem to weigh on Jackson. He spoke candidly about the highs and the lows of the game. He praised the Chiefs and expressed hope for the 2024 Ravens. He was not combative or mournful or curt.
In an emptying locker room, as Beckham offered his last rites for the season to a few dozen reporters, Jackson retreated to his stall. Inside linebacker Patrick Queen, one of his biggest supporters, joined him. Jackson, his hands buzzing about, his eyes widened, looked frustrated.
“We were facing adversity all season,” Jackson had said to the last question of the last news conference of his season. “Nobody thought we were going to be in this position — new system, new guys, whole new team. We’ve got some vets that came on with the team. People didn’t think we were going to be in this position, but we were. Next time, we’ve just got to finish, man.”
Sunday was supposed to be that next time, though. And, if not now for Jackson and the Ravens, when?