A storm cloud formed over M&T Bank Stadium as the Baltimore Ravens blew the biggest game of Lamar Jackson’s career. At the end of the third quarter, with the Ravens trailing the Kansas City Chiefs by 10 points, the stadium lights dimmed, and Ravens legend Terrell Suggs marched out of the tunnel and into the end zone. Suggs raised his arms and urged the Baltimore crowd, watching their first home AFC championship game since 1971, to scream. As the lights turned back on, the dark cloud appeared more menacing than ever. The crowd was in a frenzy, unaware of the heartache that was about to come.
The Ravens soon lined up at the Chiefs’ 9-yard line for the first play of the fourth quarter, with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line. Jackson tossed the ball to rookie receiver Zay Flowers, who caught the pass on the left hashmark at the 7-yard line, cut upfield, split three defenders, and reached for the goal line, ready to score the touchdown that would cut Kansas City’s lead to three. It’s the kind of moment NFL players wait their entire lives for.
But instead of Flowers chopping the Chiefs’ lead, the ball was chopped from his hands. Chiefs cornerback L’Jarius Sneed punched the ball out just inches from the goal line, and cornerback Trent McDuffie recovered in the end zone for a Kansas City touchback. When Jackson threw an interception in the end zone on the Ravens’ next possession, the game, and the Ravens’ dream season, was all but over. The Ravens lost, 17-10.
“I wanted to win,” Flowers said after the game, tears in his eyes, as he tried to explain his fumble.
It’s a perfect metaphor for this Ravens season: so close, and yet so far away. Kansas City is heading to the Super Bowl despite scoring just 17 points and being shut out in the second half. With such a stellar performance from Baltimore’s defense, the Ravens offense twice turning the ball over in the end zone in the fourth quarter is soul-crushing.
“The word for it,” Ravens defensive back Daryl Worley said, “is heartbreak.”
This was the season for the Ravens. Jackson signed a $260 million contract extension and is likely going to be awarded his second MVP soon. The defense had the most sacks in the NFL and ranked first in defensive DVOA. The list of teams Baltimore rocked this season includes the Dolphins and Texans and the two NFC finalists, the Lions and 49ers. Baltimore beat the playoff teams on their schedule by more than 100 points combined, a feat matched in NFL history only by the 2007 New England Patriots, who went 18-1 overall. The Ravens led the NFL in rushing yards on offense while allowing the fewest points on defense and as a team averaged more than 25 points per game, which according to NFL Research had been done only by the 1985 Bears and the undefeated 1972 Miami Dolphins. This was a team that seemed poised to take its place among the all-time greats. Instead they’re joining the Cowboys in Cancun.
The loss is even more crushing considering how well Baltimore was set up for success. Other AFC contenders wilted as their quarterbacks dropped like flies: Aaron Rodgers played just four snaps for the Jets; Cincinnati’s Joe Burrow and L.A.’s Justin Herbert suffered season-ending injuries, ending their Super Bowl aspirations before the postseason; Buffalo’s and Miami’s defenses were devastated by injuries. For years, it seemed Baltimore was the snakebit team that could not stay healthy. This year, Baltimore flipped the script, preserving Jackson amid a devastated AFC quarterback landscape and earning the city its first home conference title game in more than half a century. All they had to do was get by the weakest Chiefs team of the Patrick Mahomes era, and they couldn’t do it.
Jackson finished with 20 completions on 37 pass attempts for 272 yards and a touchdown. He also took four sacks. But it was Jackson’s interception in the end zone that effectively sealed the loss. Jackson was targeting tight end Isaiah Likely and threw into triple coverage. Jackson’s decision may not have been as bad as it initially looked, as he underthrew the ball and allowed the defenders to catch up to it. Throwing earlier and harder might have yielded a touchdown. But that, too, was emblematic of Jackson’s day.
Just a week ago in the divisional round, Jackson throttled Houston’s defense. He saw the highest blitz rate of his career and wrecked the Texans. But while the Texans blitzed in man coverage, with pass defenders turning their back to Jackson and allowing him to scramble, the Chiefs blitzed in zone coverage, their pass defenders facing Jackson. The tactic helped limit Jackson to just eight carries for 54 yards. Still, early on it looked like Jackson would deliver an iconic performance. He whirly-dirlied his way out of a sack, calmly resetting the pocket and launching a touchdown pass to Flowers.
LAMAR BREAKS OUT OF A SACK AND FINDS ZAY FLOWERS FOR A THIRTY YARD TOUCHDOWN— JPAFootball (@jasrifootball) January 28, 2024
THIS IS PLAYOFF FOOTBALLpic.twitter.com/jDwUb49dVE
Jackson also had what might have been the highlight of his career when he fielded his own batted pass like a center fielder running in to claim a fly ball. It’s the kind of play that showed Lamar’s brilliance (and proved Gisele was wrong—quarterbacks can throw and catch). But just four plays after that epic throw-and-catch, the Ravens punted. The team was once again unable to take advantage of Jackson’s ability to do things nobody else can do. That failure to capitalize has defined this era of Ravens football.
Meanwhile, Mahomes and tight end Travis Kelce were typically brilliant (connecting 11 times for 116 yards and a touchdown), and the Chiefs took advantage of Baltimore’s mistakes, two things that have defined this era of Chiefs football. The Chiefs executed their opening game script to perfection, scoring touchdowns on their first two drives. That included a drive that took more than nine minutes, the third longest of Mahomes’s career, and yet another iconic Mahomes play: a third-down throw in which the quarterback scrambled and found Kelce over the middle of the field for a leaping catch.
Mahomes better protect himself out there! What a CATCH by Kelce tho. 87 came to play!!!— Darius Butler (@DariusJButler) January 28, 2024
Outside of those first two drives, the only Ravens defensive imperfections were two penalties on the Chiefs’ final drive before halftime that gifted the Chiefs 30 yards and allowed Kansas City to make a 52-yard field goal—their final points of the game. (You might not remember those penalties because they were before ref Shawn Smith’s voice started cracking.)
Most of the Ravens’ warts were on offense. In the first half alone, Jackson was strip sacked, nearly had a pass intercepted, and missed two throws out of the two-minute warning that handed the Chiefs the ball. Combine that with the two turnovers in the end zone in the second half, and the Ravens burned themselves. This is the strangeness of this game: Baltimore was inches from stealing momentum back from Kansas City in a tight game before Flowers’s fumble. But they also were a few plays from being blown out 31-10.
“It’s classic,” Ravens guard Kevin Zeitler said in the locker room afterward. “Feels like we did it to ourselves. We had opportunities all over and didn’t get it done.”
As Zeitler was talking, receiver Odell Beckham Jr. approached and dapped Zeitler up mid-sentence. “I appreciate you, man,” Beckham told Zeitler. As Beckham walked away to visit the rest of the offensive linemen, Zeitler regathered himself. “It feels like there should be something to keep looking forward to, but obviously it’s over.“
For fans, seasons end. But for players, seasons die. Seemingly everyone who had been in the Ravens locker room in those first few moments after the game, from players to coaches to trainers to the public relations team, seemed to be grieving. And people grieve in different ways.
Zeitler seemed to just be getting over that first stage of grief: denial. Jackson was still stuck on step two. “I feel like my team is not frustrated,” Jackson said at his press conference, “but angry.” Linebacker Roquan Smith seemed in that fourth stage of grief: sadness. “We all put so much on the line, and to let ourselves down in that position, it sucks.”
The dark cloud that descended over the stadium during the game followed the Ravens into the locker room. Plenty of players and team employees had tears in their eyes, and Flowers cried as he stood in front of the media horde and took responsibility for his fumble. As Flowers talked, Beckham and general manager Eric DeCosta huddled a short distance away, murmuring about the need to stay positive, though DeCosta seemed to be talking to himself as much as he was talking to the veteran wideout. Beckham nodded. The pair had seemingly reached acceptance. Or at least were trying to tell themselves that they had.
An hour after the loss, only three players remained. Beckham was in the middle of the room, surrounded by about three dozen reporters. Jackson and linebacker Patrick Queen were together in a corner. The quarterback talked quietly but emphatically, that sort of whisper-yell for when you have a lot to say but nobody is supposed to hear. Jackson flailed his hands and recounted moments from the game. Jackson indicated at his news conference a short time before that he was angry, but he looked far angrier now. This dark cloud will hang over the Ravens for a long time. But inside Jackson, another storm might be swirling.