Winning made the Ravens Soft and it Cost them when it Matter Most

by Jordy McElroy

The Baltimore Ravens sat on their throne long enough for the Tennessee Titans to knock them off. A well-timed right hook in the form of bruising running back Derrick Henry put the Ravens down early in Saturday’s Divisional playoff game and kept them there for good.

It was a shocking turn of events for a team that hadn’t lost a game since Week 4 of the regular season. Their dominate run included obliterating the New England Patriots, Houston Texans and Los Angeles Rams, along with knocking off the San Francisco 49ers, Seattle Seahawks and Buffalo Bills. A murderer’s row schedule looked more like a picnic for the Ravens.

The defense played lights out, and the rest of the world marveled at quarterback Lamar Jackson’s skyrocketing superstardom. It didn’t matter if they were playing at home, on the road or the Wal-Mart parking lot. They ran over any and everybody standing in their way.

How ironic that the Titans would do the same to them and ultimately end their bid for a Super Bowl.

Henry crashed the picnic by rushing for a backbreaking 195 yards on the Ravens’ top-five run defense. The Lamar Jackson Show was also finally neutralized by a Titans defense that forced four sacks and three turnovers.

As the waning seconds ticked off the clock to signal the Ravens’ postseason mortality, the self-reflection immediately began. Did the team choke? Was Jackson simply unprepared for the bright lights of playoff football? Did the defense prove they were overrated?  Or, were the Titans just that good?

Perhaps all of those questions played a small role in the Ravens’ postseason run being cut short. Yet, the most sensible reason is the fact that John Harbaugh took his foot off the gas in Week 17. That was the week of the fateful decision made by the Ravens head coach to rest his starters for an extra week, even though they had essentially already locked up a first-round bye.

When asked about rust potentially being a factor, Harbaugh never shied away from the question and even acknowledged it as a possible theory.

The Ravens looked like a team that had been laid up for an extra week being thrown onto the tracks of a speeding locomotive. Practicing isn’t the same as playing on the field in the throes of competition. While the Titans were scratching and clawing their way into the playoffs, the Ravens were beginning their three-week break from game action.

They passively sat on their regular season throne completely confident in their ability to hit the juggernaut switch when they needed it.

And Harbaugh allowed them to do it.

The Super Bowl-winning head coach had no qualms with letting his well-oiled machine sit on a shelf collecting dust. A better option would have been playing the starters for the first three quarters of the final week against the Pittsburgh Steelers to attempt to avoid complacency.

The Ravens looked like a championship boxer that had taken a sabbatical, only to get punched in the mouth upon return by a hungrier contender. Winning turned the league’s most physical football team into a softer version of itself, and not even the most electric quarterback in the league could save them. Dropped passes, untimely penalties and bone-headed defensive breakdowns—it was like Murphy’s Law had a front row seat to their undoing.

If only he showed up a few weeks earlier, then maybe the Ravens’ season wouldn’t have ended like this.