They both stumbled into the divisional round like awkward teenagers trying to blend in on their first day of high school. Everything about the Ravens’ and Bills’ offensive game plans felt forced, frantic and entirely removed from the foundational aspects of what got them there.
Baltimore was rattled, backing its way into second-and-28s; reverting to the silent snap count in a stadium filled with just 6,700 people. The Ravens’ All-World kicker was thwacking ball after ball off the uprights. Their center was catapulting snaps over Lamar Jackson’s head. Jackson was missing open receivers.
Buffalo didn’t attempt a designed running play until deep in the second quarter, forcing Josh Allen to run a play-action offense that didn’t give Baltimore’s amoebic defense a moment’s pause. The Ravens blitzed about half as frequently in the first half as they did all season. The Bills blitzed almost 25% more, and went from a defense that played man coverage on almost half their snaps to zone coverage almost 90% of the time. And through all this, a spontaneous gale-force wind whipped through Orchard Park to turn fortuitous passing attempts into wayward knuckleballs.
In the end, the Bills continued their franchise’s dramatic turnaround with a 17-3 win that sends them to the AFC championship game.
There’s beauty in a game placed in that type of setting, even if it is not amenable to the aesthetic fireworks show we’ve come to expect from the NFL playoffs. And most of the time, it creates the kind of stormy chaos that should favor the Ravens and their weatherproof ability to shred opponents on the ground. For two years now, they have built one of the most efficient, disaster-resistant systems in football for when common sense breaks down like it did on Sunday. They were on a historic pace rushing the football. And for the second straight year, they have sustained a loss that is all parts inexplicable and heartbreaking in the playoffs.
The concussion sustained by Jackson in the fourth quarter didn’t help, and ultimately doomed a team with two good scoring drives left in them. But even in the moments preceding, like when Jackson missed a lurking Taron Johnson in the red zone and surrendered one of the most consequential pick-sixes in recent memory, and one of the longest in postseason history, one couldn’t help but wonder if the Ravens are the kind of team with a hard ceiling in the Jackson-Greg Roman era. This is not to say that what they’ve created in Baltimore isn’t brilliant and maddening, especially when a team faces the Ravens in the middle of a rigorous stretch during the regular season where the preceding and following opponents are both completely different offensively. But this is now three consecutive postseasons where a good defensive-minded coach with only one game and opponent to worry about has been able to craft a sound plan to keep the best of what Baltimore does under his thumb.
Case in point: Back in Jackson’s rookie year, it was the Anthony Lynn-Gus Bradley quarters package that trotted out seven defensive backs on the field at once and simultaneously tracked Jackson out of the backfield and shut down the core tenants of Baltimore’s running game.
Last year against Dean Pees and the Titans in the playoffs, it was a Tite front and a solid performance from Jackson’s spy defender.
This year, the Ravens managed just a sliver of their standard rushing offense as the Bills beat up on their interior offensive line and, when facing Baltimore’s loaded backfields, shot their defensive backs up field to disrupt the timing of any option handoffs.
If anything, Saturday may have been the public’s realization of an issue the Ravens were well aware of from the beginning of the season when they were flirting with the idea of signing Antonio Brown and hoarding Dez Bryant on their practice squad. The Ravens were always at their best with Jackson when their passing options were more dynamic and diversified. The team has been begging for more complementary options to spread out what was an effective, tight-end-centric attack that never seemed to mature from Jackson’s stunning 2019 MVP season.
The Weak-Side Podcast now has its own feed! Subscribe to listen to Conor Orr and Jenny Vrentas every week.
It’s important to remember that this isn’t an indictment of Jackson totally. The only people who won’t allow him to escape the false narrative that he is a poor postseason quarterback are the ones who never allowed the idea of him being a full-time quarterback in the NFL to enter their headspace. This is more like a glaring example of a good thing going stagnant.
To push past this point, Baltimore must find a balance between being the team that can simply exhaust opponents into a team that can bludgeon them in multiple ways; to shapeshift like their opponents did and come out looking stronger. Jackson, clearly, is ready to explore those possibilities. After Saturday, Baltimore’s front office will be too.