BALTIMORE — John Harbaugh was standing in the back of his Baltimore Ravens locker room, trying to assess the damage around him, when an awful thought suddenly hit him from the blind side.
“What am I going to do tomorrow?” he blurted out.
He was wearing a purple, short-sleeve T-shirt and a boyish expression of confusion and dismay.
Sports can be so downright heartbreaking, so impossibly cruel. A good football man refuses to watch two good football games because, well, the whole thing can really cut you in half.
Six years ago, after watching his son Peyton and his Broncos get pounded in Super Bowl XLVIII by the Seahawks in his son Eli’s stadium, Archie Manning stood outside the losers’ locker room and told a reporter, “That’s why I hate football.” Yep, a father whose sons had three Super Bowl MVP trophies between them decided he despised the sport that tormented him on that dreadful night in New Jersey.
The Ravens had intimate knowledge of that feeling Saturday night. They had the best player of 2019, the best coach of 2019 and the best roster of 2019 heading into their first game of 2020. Who could fathom that they would go to bed at night knowing that they would spend the rest of their lives trying and failing to explain this magical season that wasn’t?
“You don’t ever expect to get into a car crash until you get in a car crash,” linebacker Matthew Judon said. “And I feel like that’s what it is.”
The No. 6 seed Tennessee Titans physically overwhelmed the top-seeded Ravens in their 28-12 divisional playoff win, leaving the M&T Bank Stadium crowd in a funereal state. The last time the proud football fans of this proud football town absorbed a gut punch such as this, an owner named Robert Irsay had the Colts franchise loaded into 15 Mayflower moving vans in the dead of a March 1984 night for a getaway trip to Indianapolis.
These Ravens were 14-2 and winners of a dozen in a row. Lamar Jackson didn’t just dominate the league in his first full season as a starter. He dramatically altered the calculus of the sport, inspiring forecasts of a new age of athlete at the quarterback position.
The Titans had just beaten Tom Brady, the greatest of them all, on his own turf, but they were a 9-7 afterthought in the regular season and appeared to employ a number of defenders who were likely to zig whenever Jackson zagged.
But even with the kind of point guard (Jackson) and fast-breaking playmakers who would have surely won any best-of-seven basketball series, the Ravens were victimized by the NFL’s best-of-one format. They hadn’t played all-out since Dec. 22 against Cleveland, and the rust and the rest conspired against them and allowed for one of the most stunning postseason results in recent memory.
Jackson threw for 365 yards and ran for 143 more, but for once, his numbers told a big, fat lie. There was some serious garbage-time padding in the box score. Ryan Tannehill threw for only 88 yards and ran for only 13, but he passed for two touchdowns (Jackson passed for one while trailing 28-6 in the fourth) and ran for the one score (Jackson ran for none) that effectively sealed the upset. Jackson led the league with 36 touchdown passes, yet he threw for the same amount of scores against Tennessee that Derrick Henry threw against Baltimore.
The league’s best player and certain MVP was twice picked off and twice stuffed on fourth-and-short rushing attempts. Jackson picked the worst possible time to have a rough night at the office, and hey, that’s life. The layoff killed his team, and so did Henry (195 rushing yards) and a Tennessee defensive front that reduced Baltimore’s offensive line to a shadow of what it had been all season.
Jackson’s fourth-down incompletion with 4:27 left sent scores of fans toward the parking lots and compelled the quarterback to angrily unbutton his chinstrap while Tennessee’s dynamic young coach, Mike Vrabel, raised his arms to the sky. Suddenly, the 2019 Titans looked like the 2011 Giants, the only team to win a Super Bowl after going 9-7.
The Ravens? They will learn from this like they learned from Jackson’s first playoff defeat to the Chargers last season. For a source of inspiration, they could consider a game that involved a local school, the University of Maryland-Baltimore County, which in 2018 fielded a 16th-seeded NCAA tournament basketball team that destroyed the top-seeded Virginia Cavaliers. Harbaugh was reminded of that game on Saturday. He was reminded that the Cavaliers rebounded the following year to win the whole thing.
“Yeah, we could do that,” he said.
Earlier, as he was leaving the podium at his postgame news conference, the coach stopped and hugged his quarterback. “This is our beginning, right?” Harbaugh told Jackson as he patted his back. “This is our beginning.”
Jackson later cut through the locker room with a white towel wrapped around his neck, embracing teammates and others in his path. As he approached his stall, the quarterback took the towel and threw it into the locker manned by his backup, Robert Griffin III. Harbaugh followed soon after, hugging players and thanking them for everything they had given him since training camp.
“I can’t be upset,” the losing coach said after making his rounds. “Every single day, they gave us everything they had. It really was the best we could be. We just played like s— today.”
Because of that, Harbaugh won’t bother watching Texans-Chiefs or Seahawks-Packers. Maybe he will hit some golf balls on Sunday, or maybe he will shoot baskets with his teenage daughter, Alison, who has committed to play lacrosse at Notre Dame.
The sun will come up for the Harbaughs and for Jackson and for all of Baltimore. Because it always does eventually. But without question, the pain of this night is something these 14-3 Ravens will take to their graves.
Life isn’t fair. Neither is sports.