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Ravens Insider: Ravens prepare for playoff opener, looking to lessons from 2019 loss they’re ‘still not completely over’


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Ronnie Stanley does not want to forget.

The 2019 season, in many respects a professional pinnacle for the Ravens left tackle and his team, ended in profound disappointment. The Ravens’ Super Bowl ambitions, their 12-game winning streak, their No. 1 playoff seed all evaporated before they knew what hit them in front of a stunned crowd at M&T Bank Stadium on the night of Jan. 11, 2020.

The letdown lingers for the 11 current Ravens who were on that team and for the fans who invested so much belief in that season. It affects the way they look at this season, with the Ravens back in the same spot: No. 1 seed in the AFC, led by the likely NFL Most Valuable Player in quarterback Lamar Jackson and preparing to host a playoff opponent against whom they will be heavily favored.

“I’m still not completely over it, to be honest,” Stanley reflected. “Those opportunities don’t come too often.”

Though some teammates, including Jackson, have said they’d prefer to put questions about 2019 behind them, Stanley does not see memories of the experience as unwelcome ghosts.

“I don’t think it will get annoying,” he said. “Those are stuff that are always in the back of our head, the guys that were there and experienced it. We know the feeling that stuck with us still to this point, and we don’t want to feel that again.”

So what will the Ravens do differently to create a happier ending? It’s not a straightforward question to answer, because the reasons for their previous downfall are difficult to pinpoint.

When coach John Harbaugh thinks back to his team’s preparations four years ago, he recalls a smooth process. He has noted several times that the Ravens gained 530 yards, their second highest total of the 2019 season, in their 28-12 playoff loss to the Tennessee Titans.

“What impacted what [and] how in terms of us not playing our best football that day, it’s really hard to say what the cause and effect was,” he said. “I think we had a good game plan; we just didn’t get the job done in certain plays.”

Harbaugh has tweaked the team’s practice schedule this time around — he scheduled a Saturday walk-through at M&T Bank Stadium “just to keep in rhythm” — but still opted to rest Jackson and other key players for the team’s low-stakes regular-season finale against the Pittsburgh Steelers. He was not going to transform his approach because of a four-year-old loss.

“You have to look at everything from the framework or through the lens of today — this team and the challenges that we’re facing,” Harbaugh said.

When players talk about the differences between the two teams, they note the granular outlook they’ve maintained this season, refusing to look past the next play or practice to more grandiose goals such as the Super Bowl.

“We were so young,” Jackson said, thinking back to his second year in the NFL and first as a full-time starter.

“I think we’re a completely different team, a completely different staff,” offensive lineman Patrick Mekari said. “The focus feels different. The intensity feels different. The purpose feels different. I don’t think we’re thinking, ‘Oh, it’s the same as 2019. Let’s hope that doesn’t happen again.'”

For Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson, shown leaving the field after a playoff loss against the Tennessee Titans on Jan. 11, 2020, his absence was a jarring reminder that the pandemic, which disrupted his 2020 season, has not gone away in 2021.
Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun/TNS
Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson, walking off the field after a stunning 28-12 postseason loss to the Titans on Jan. 11, 2020, said, “2019 is over with.” (Karl Merton Ferron/Staff)

One day at a time, one practice at a time might sound cliche, but it has become their mantra. “Be your own biggest critic,” Harbaugh told them this week, another phrase to keep the focus narrow.

They’re less statistically dominant than they were four years ago, when they led the league in scoring and did not lose a regular-season game after the last weekend in September. But this team saved its best performances for late December, whereas the 2019 edition seemed to peak a month earlier.

“I do feel like 2019 gave us a lot of insight into the things that we could have gotten better at, using this time and being able to prepare,” Stanley said. “I would say, not be rigid about it, but be focused. I think that’s been our mindset all season.”

When game day arrives, they will be alert to the dangers of a sluggish start.

“I remember we came out really, really slow in that Titans game,” nose tackle Michael Pierce said. “We’re definitely mindful of what happened last time.”

Many fans who will roar for the Ravens next weekend were also in the stadium four years ago, when a brilliant season fell apart in little more than a quarter of game time against the Titans. It began with a Jackson pass caroming off the normally reliable hands of tight end Mark Andrews and into the arms of Tennessee defensive back Kevin Byard. That interception set up a short Titans touchdown drive.

When the Ravens got the ball back, Jackson carried on fourth-and-1 in their territory — the team’s aggression and efficiency on fourth down were trademarks — only to be stonewalled. Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill immediately capitalized with a perfect 45-yard missile to put his team up 14-0. The Ravens would have chances to claw back, but they were cooked.

Because of that disappointment, fans who otherwise profess great faith in this year’s team acknowledged they will have their guards up. They’re already cautious after a wonderful Orioles season ended with three swift losses to the Texas Rangers in the postseason.

“Sure, you always have your guard up, because it’s one-and-done,” said Andy Stewart, of Glen Rock, Pennsylvania. “It happens all the time in sports. That’s why you almost want to be the underdog going into these things, and right now, it’s hard to say we are.”

Nursing an injury, Baltimore Ravens tight end Mark Andrews watches pregame for an AFC matchup of NFL football against the Miami Dolphins in Baltimore Sunday Dec. 31, 2023. (Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun Staff)
Ravens tight end Mark Andrews, shown before a game against the Dolphins on Dec. 31, likely won’t play in Baltimore’s first playoff game as he recovers from an ankle injury. (Karl Merton Ferron/Staff)

Before the Ravens clinched a first-round bye, some fans went so far as to root against it, fearing the Ravens might lose their edge with an extra week off. The franchise’s previous two Super Bowl winners were not No. 1 seeds; they had to roll through favored opponents in hostile stadiums.

“I’m not a big fan of the bye thing,” said Frank Schwartz, of Pasadena. “I’d rather see the team, when they’re on a roll, keep playing.”

At the same time, the Ravens made fans believe with back-to-back drubbings of the San Francisco 49ers and Miami Dolphins to clinch the No. 1 seed, an extra week of rest and home-field advantage until the Super Bowl. Those who’ve been around since the team arrived in 1996 struggled to recall a better pair of performances.

Stewart, 54, sees a more seasoned Jackson, a healthier offensive line, a smart, fierce defensive leader in linebacker Roquan Smith and thinks, “I don’t see a reason to fear the letdown. We’ve never had a better team.”

“I think they’re in a better place now,” the 68-year-old Schwartz said. “With the new coordinators, the weapons around Lamar now, they just seem to be clicking at the right time. I was never a Lamar fan; I always said he choked in the big games, but he proved me wrong this year.”

So much of the anticipation and anxiety around the Ravens is centered on Jackson, who had just completed his first full season when they lost to the Titans. He has embraced that burden since he promised Baltimore a championship on the night he was drafted in 2018, never more so than this season, after he signed a five-year, $260 million contract extension in April.

If teammates and fans believe in this team’s Super Bowl destiny, it’s largely because they believe in him — his greater control of the offense and his refusal to look past the moment in front of him.

“2019 is over with,” Jackson said. “We’re always talking about it. I always find myself talking about it, but it’s different. That was just my first full season [starting] in the NFL and my second year in the league, at that, but it’s a different mindset, a different group of guys. I just feel like all around, we’re different.”

AFC divisional round

TBD at Ravens

Jan. 20-21, TBA


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