BALTIMORE — They stood side by side and made a pact.
Together, they promised to return to that same stadium, that very locker room, to retrieve what they left behind.
As the Baltimore Ravens’ season was just beginning, John Harbaugh and his players already were planning where it would end: Miami. And as proof of their commitment, they left a football behind as a souvenir.
In the aftermath of their Week 1 thrashing of the Dolphins — a near 50-point beatdown in their Sept. 8th season opener — the Ravens huddled in the visitors locker room at Hard Rock Stadium and vowed, “We’re going to come back here.” And in the euphoria of their first win, head equipment manager William Sheridan stood on a table and promptly hid the football out of view.
The exact location of the football is known only to those in the Ravens’ inner sanctum. But in the days leading up to Saturday’s AFC divisional showdown with the Tennessee Titans, Ravens players divulged to Yahoo Sports just how deep their commitment was to returning to Miami.
Their mission began four months ago.
Little did they know that their quest would abruptly end in stunning fashion.
The top-seeded Ravens — the team that had been led all season by MVP-frontrunner Lamar Jackson and the team that dominated opponents in dizzying fashion over the past 12 weeks — were bullied on their own home field by a team few saw coming. The sixth-seeded Titans unleashed a full-on assault on the NFL’s best team, as Derrick Henry rushed for 195 yards on 30 carries and quarterback Ryan Tannenhill did just enough (88 yards on 7-of-14 passing) to keep Tennessee rolling, en route to a 28-12 victory and a spot in next week’s AFC championship game.
“You don’t ever expect to get into a car crash until you get into a car crash. And I feel like that’s what it is,” Ravens linebacker Matthew Judon said. “We were riding. We were rolling hot, and it hit us. Today was the end of our season, and it was the end of this locker room as we know it, and this roster as we know it.”
Baltimore carried hype and high expectations into the game, but after almost three weeks off for some players, the Ravens looked like a different team.
Uncharacteristically undisciplined (seven penalties).
Uncharacteristically careless with the football (two interceptions and a lost fumble by Jackson, plus several drops by his pass catchers).
Uncharacteristically inept in the red zone (their lone touchdown came in the fourth quarter).
The Ravens were a shell of themselves when it mattered most. And this time, Jackson’s pretty spirals and spin moves did not save them.
After posting a historic regular season, the second-year quarterback had one of his worst performances at the worst possible time. Despite completing 31 of 59 passes for 365 yards and rushing for 143 yards on 20 carries, Jackson failed to rise to the occasion in key moments. As did his teammates.
“We beat ourselves. We had — I had a lot of mistakes,” he said. “… We’ve just got to do better. They weren’t doing anything spectacular out there. Nothing we’ve never seen before. We’ve just got to put points on the board.”
Not since their Week 4 loss to Cleveland had the Ravens looked so out of sync. Their opening three drives were a clinic in inefficiency, ending in an interception, followed by a turnover on downs and finally a punt, and for the first time all season, Baltimore found itself trailing 14-0.
To the surprise of everyone seated inside M&T Bank Stadium, it was Tannehill who engineered the first two scoring drives of the game.
A sellout crowd sat in stunned silence as the Titans built their lead to 14-0 on Jonnu Smith’s 12-yard touchdown catch (which was set up by safety Kevin Byard’s interception off a tipped Jackson pass to Mark Andrews) and a 45-yard bomb from Tannehill to Kalif Raymond.
“There was definitely a point in the game where I was like, ‘What is going on?’” said Ravens cornerback Marlon Humphrey, who was beaten by Raymond on a double-move. “But I thought it was still within grasp. Even down to the clock hitting zero, I was still like, ‘Is this really happening?’ One of the guys was like, ‘This is a dream. I’m going to wake up tomorrow and it is going to be Saturday and it is going to be gameday. That is kind of what it felt like, honestly, as crazy as that sounds.”
After the game, Harbaugh took turns shaking hands and hugging players in the locker room.
Save for intermittent expletives echoing from the showers, the room was mostly still.
Ravens safety Earl Thomas — who made headlines earlier in the week for his criticism of New England’s defense on Henry in the wild-card round — sat hunched over at his locker, staring at an Instagram video of Henry’s best plays of the game: a 66-yard run and his jump-pass touchdown to receiver Corey Davis to make it 21-6 in the third quarter.
“He was running tough,” Thomas said of Henry, the Titans’ 6-foot-3, 247-pound back. “… He had a solid game. He had a real good game. You’ve just got to tackle. And when you arm tackle, he just runs right through. He’s a big back and he runs big.”
Dazed looks filled the room as Ravens players struggled to explain the one thing no one saw coming.
“We got our ass whupped today. For real,” running back Mark Ingram, who was sidelined in practice this week because of a calf injury, said in his brief, expletive-filled session with reporters.
Jackson couldn’t say how long this loss would linger with him, but he reiterated his disdain for losing. “I hate losing. I really do,” he said.
He also scoffed when asked if he had given any thought to playing in the Pro Bowl.
“I wanted to be in the Super Bowl,” Jackson said. “… I don’t care about the Pro Bowl [right now].”
A short time later, the quarterback was overheard in the locker room saying that he wouldn’t watch the Super Bowl because he was “supposed to be in it.”
They all thought they would be.
A return trip to Miami didn’t feel all that far-fetched to the Ravens in the aftermath of their 59-10 win over the Dolphins. Harbaugh and his players promised to stay the course and eventually come back to that locker room to retrieve the football they left behind.
That performance had set the standard for everything they hoped to be this season, and in that moment, they understood that no one can stop them when they’re at their best.
It almost felt predestined back in Week 1.
The Ravens, a team rooted in togetherness and brotherhood, believed they had the talent and the mental fortitude to overcome whatever they would face in the weeks to come. And yet, with so much at stake, and only two games separating them from the Super Bowl, Baltimore completely folded against a team and a former backup quarterback who has thrown for only 160 yards over two playoff games.
This was an outcome the Ravens never saw coming. And yet, this “sad reality” felt all too familiar, said Humphrey.
“This team's identity right now is to get in the playoffs and choke,” said the cornerback. “It is what it is. This is just the hard truth.”
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