BALTIMORE -- A late fourth-quarter rally led by dynamic rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson wasn't enough to counter three quarters of ineffective football from the offense and special teams, and as a result the Ravens' season came to an end with a 23-17 loss to the Los Angeles Chargers in the divisional round playoff game at M&T Bank Stadium Jan. 6.
The Ravens totaled one first down in the game’s middle two quarters, and the Jackson-led passing game was so inept that at one point in the fourth quarter they had a net of minus-2 passing yards. Jackson rebounded to engineer two late scoring drives, but another fumble -- the Ravens fourth of the game -- ended their final gasp with 18 seconds left.
Here are five quick impressions of the game, which ends the Ravens season at 10-7 and starts the clock on a tumultuous offseason in Baltimore:
1. The Chargers won this game up front.
From the outset the Chargers' defensive line dominated the Ravens up front, taking away the Ravens' running game in large doses and, for three and a half quarters, making life miserable for Jackson when he tried to throw.
Rookie running back Gus Edwards finished with 23 rushing yards on eight carries, and neither he nor Kenneth Dixon (six carries, 13 yards) had a run of longer than five yards. Dixon had the ball stripped on his first carry of the game, leading to the Chargers' first field goal.
It was clear the Chargers set their defense to stop the run up the middle and they succeeded. The Ravens converted two of nine third downs in the first three quarters, often trying to run the ball, to no avail. Forced to throw late, the Ravens were held to 90 rushing yards, by far their lowest total since Jackson became the starting quarterback. The second-lowest total (159) came against the Chargers Dec. 22.
When Jackson dropped back to throw, he struggled to find time, and was buried on back-to-back sacks in the third quarter. Overall, the Chargers' defensive line never let Jackson or the Ravens' running game get any traction. Credit to them for an outstanding game plan and execution.
"We didn't execute in our blocking as well as they played the defense," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "That's why they deserved to win the game."
2. Ball security is a huge factor, especially come playoff time.
The Ravens and Jackson have had ball-security issues all year, so perhaps it's fitting that the season essentially ended on another fumble, as Jackson was strip-sacked by Chargers linebacker Uchenna Nwosu with 18 seconds left when the Ravens -- somehow -- still had a chance to win.
That was the Ravens' fourth fumble of the game, and they had three on consecutive offensive snaps during a frightfully error-prone sequence early. The Ravens were fortunate that they recovered two of the fumbles and surrendered only three points out of that sequence.
Jackson finished the season with 15 fumbles, including 13 in eight games as a starter. But he was not the only culprit. Kenneth Dixon fumbled three times in seven games, losing two of them inside the Ravens' 20-yard line in two games against the Chargers. Alex Collins has seven fumbles in 25 career games with the Ravens.
When a team has designs on a playoff run, especially against a top-10 defense, they simply can’t afford to give away possessions and give the other team a short field.
"The ball-handling in an offense like this is the thing," Harbaugh said.
"You can't put the ball on the ground," he later added. "That’s something that [Jackson] knows, and our backs know, and everybody knows. Even our snaps. Our snaps are not where they need to be consistently. … That’s something we’ll go to work on when we come back and that will be priority one."
3. This defense can keep the Ravens in any game.
The Ravens' defense again was stellar for much of the game, and it was only their tenacious play that kept this game from being a blowout early. The Ravens gave up a fumble inside their own 20-yard line, and the Chargers had first-and-goal at the 6 and were held to a field goal.
Through three quarters, the Chargers were held to four field goals, which normally would be a winning formula, except the Ravens up to that point were struggling through a historically bad offensive performance. At the end of the third quarter, the Ravens had three first downs and three completions for the game.
The Ravens obviously can't expect to win a lot when the offense shows up for the final seven minutes of a 60-minute game, but Don "Wink" Martindale's defense was tenacious, consistent, and able to keep the Ravens in any game this season. They earned their No. 1 overall ranking.
"Defensively, we fought to the bitter end," safety Eric Weddle said.
"Our defense played the best of all three phases. … I thought they played the way they have all year," Harbaugh said.
4. Two late drives showed the potential of this offense. But will that become the norm?
There’s no question that for much of this game, the Ravens’ offense was as bad as it has been in this or any season. At one point in the fourth quarter, they had minus-2 passing yards when factoring in all the sacks.
Jackson completed his first two passes and then went 0-for-6 during the remainder of the first half, with one interception. When he did throw, he was high (as on the interception), off target or short, at times hurried by a tenacious Chargers pass rush.
Early in the game, the Ravens frequently opted to run on third down, even in a situation when they had receiver Michael Crabtree isolated one-on-one to the outside in a situation seemingly designed ideally for the veteran receiver. The message seemed to be that the Ravens trusted the run game much more than the passing game, and that's with good reason at this stage of Jackson's career. To their credit, the Chargers knew that, were ready for it, and defended it.
In the fourth quarter, Jackson showed his potential with a 31-yard touchdown pass to Michael Crabtree, and then a 7-yard touchdown to Crabtree after a Houdini-like escape and 39-yard, improvised pass to Kenneth Dixon.
But as Harbaugh said after the game, "Lamar is our quarterback going forward."
The Ravens think they have something with this read-option game, and they are running with it. But they also must be able to throw it, and improving that part of his game will be Jackson's top offseason objective.
5. A potentially tumultuous offseason is now underway.
The loss to the Chargers starts the clock on what figures to be an offseason of dramatic change in Baltimore. The Ravens have already made the change at the quarterback position, and Harbaugh all but confirmed that Flacco won't be back next year -- the former Super Bowl MVP figures to be traded or a cap casualty.
"Joe is going to play really well in this league," Harbaugh said. "Joe can still play. I think we saw that in the first half of the season. Joe's going to have a market. A lot of teams are going to want Joe because they understand that. I'll be in Joe's corner, wherever he's at, unless we play him."
But other changes are in the works as well, beginning with the general manager’s chair, where Ozzie Newsome cedes his top organizational position to Eric DeCosta. Harbaugh has been rumored to be a trade candidate as he and the Ravens reportedly work on a contract extension, but he tried to diffuse such talk after the game.
"I have every expectation, every plan, to be here as long as they want me here," he said, "and I believe I’ll be here. … I expect to go forward with that as long as that’s what they want to do. I do believe that’s what they want to do. Let’s roll."
On the field, linebacker Terrell Suggs, who has played more games than anyone in Ravens history, is a pending free agent at age 36. So is receiver John Brown, whose role greatly diminished in the Jackson-led offense, and tight end Nick Boyle, whose role as a key blocker expanded.
Jimmy Smith, Eric Weddle, Brandon Carr and Flacco are among the most notable potential cap casualties. Harbaugh has said this is the best team he has coached, in terms of the way the players meshed, but every year brings change, and this year there could be seismic change to this roster.
Suggs, for one, wants to be back, saying after the game that he would "love to be a Raven for life. I'm healthy, and I feel like I still have some juice in the tank.
"I really hope we can work it out, but if not, I’ll be lining up for somebody next year."
This has been updated.
Photo Credit: Kenya Allen/PressBox