Self-destructing Ravens squander a golden chance to reach the Super Bowl
There were a few scenarios heading into Sunday’s AFC Championship game between the Baltimore Ravens and Kansas City Chiefs that could have led the underdog Chiefs to an upset victory.
Maybe Patrick Mahomes would summon a vintage performance and will the Chiefs to a win by making one impossible play after another.
Maybe Andy Reid would combine the best of his big-game experience with his signature creativity and assemble a game-plan that was simply too good for the Ravens to overcome.
Maybe Kansas City’s underrated but impressive defense would author its best game of the season and slow down Lamar Jackson and the Ravens’ potent offensive attack.
Each of those were possible. And each, to a degree, had an impact on the eventual outcome.
But the primary culprit in Kansas City’s 17-10 victory that sends the Chiefs to the Super Bowl for the fourth time in five seasons was one I did not see coming. Namely, the Ravens’ complete and utter self-destruction that undercut any chance they had to win their first AFC championship game on the turf at M&T Bank Stadium.
How did the Ravens beat themselves? Let us count the ways.
First, there were juvenile penalties for taunting, roughing the passer and unnecessary roughness. Zae Flowers earned the first when he celebrated a long gain by shoving the football into the face of a Chiefs defensive back then posing over him. It wasn’t the most egregious taunting penalty I’ve ever seen. But with the Ravens trailing 17-7 at the time, it was immature and stupid.
The roughing penalties included a blow to the head of Mahomes by Travis Jones that resembled the famous clothesline delivered to the quarterback of the guards in the movie “The Longest Yard.” Jadaveon Clowney had another, for a helmet-to-helmet shot on Mahomes. Kyle Van Noy got the unnecessary roughness penalty on a 2nd quarter drive that led to a Chiefs field goal.
All told, those four plays cost Baltimore 60 yards in a game where yards were precious commodities.
Next were the turnovers. Lamar Jackson had the first, when he was stripped-sacked by Charles Omenihu in the 2nd quarter, giving Kansas City the ball in Baltimore territory. The Ravens got away with that one when their defense stopped the Chiefs on downs. But the next two were costly.
On the first play of the 4th quarter, Baltimore faced 2nd-and-8 at the Kansas City 9-yard-line. Jackson threw a quick screen to Flowers, who was a yard short of the goal line when he extended the football. But Kansas City defensive back L’Jarius Sneed punched it out and the Chiefs recovered in the end zone for a touchback. The Ravens were denied a crucial scoring chance.
On Baltimore’s next possession, they took over at their own 1-yard-line and drove the ball 74 yards to the Kansas City 25. But on a 2nd-and-10 play, Jackson threw towards tight end Isaiah Likely into triple coverage where it was picked by Deon Bush for another touchback. Back-to-back Ravens drives that covered 137 yards resulted in turnovers in the end zone, netting them no points.
The Ravens did manage to cut Kansas City’s lead to 17-10 on a Justin Tucker field goal with 2:34 to play. They had two timeouts remaining plus the two-minute warning. If they could produce a three-and-out, they’d get the ball back with enough time to mount a potential game-tying drive. However, in an almost unfathomable error, the Ravens took the field with twelve players. The subsequent penalty gave Kansas City a 1st-and-5.
Then, on what seemed like an intentional penalty, linebacker Roquan Smith barreled across the line early, knocking back Kansas City’s right guard and earning another roughness penalty. While the intent was understandable — the Ravens wanted to get Kansas City back into 1st-and-10 with no time running off the clock, rather than risk trying to stop them on 1st-and-5 and lose precious seconds — the execution was reckless. Smith could have easily come across and tapped a Kansas City lineman for a five-yard penalty rather than giving the Chiefs an extra ten yards by taking a cheap shot borne of frustration.
Smith’s penalty perfectly encapsulated Baltimore’s day. The Ravens were undisciplined and executed poorly for most of the game, squandering opportunities or giving life to the Chiefs at inopportune times. Jackson was just 20 of 37 passing with two turnovers. He was sacked four times and looked indecisive in the pocket. It was another disappointing playoff performance for the league’s likely MVP, whose career playoff record fell to 2-4.
Give credit to the Chiefs for playing sound football on the road in a hostile post-season environment. Mahomes made big plays when he needed to, often relying on old friend Travis Kelce to get them done. The Chiefs defense blitzed the daylights out of Jackson and played good enough man-to-man defense behind it not to get burned. Kansas City wasn’t spectacular, but they didn’t beat themselves. Which is more than the Ravens can say.
As for Baltimore, the result will create more questions about Jackson’s post-season capabilities and how they let a golden opportunity slip away. In a year where Baltimore won 11 games against teams with a winning record and were dominant against the likes of San Francisco, Detroit, Dallas and Miami, they couldn’t summon a similar performance with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line. That will make for a long off-season for both the Ravens and their fans.