Super Bowl is a reminder of an opportunity lost by the Ravens

BALTIMORE — The Ravens might have a difficult time watching the Super Bowl on Sunday, considering the players and coaches were a game away from going to Las Vegas.

Instead, the Kansas City Chiefs will play the San Francisco 49ers for the Vince Lombardi Trophy for the second time in four years.

The Ravens were Super Bowl favorites after finishing with the best record in the NFL at 13-4. They rolled past the top-tier teams in the league, including both franchises that played in the NFC Championship Game — San Francisco (33-19) and Detroit Lions (38-6) — and routed the Miami Dolphins (56-19) to clinch the top seed in the postseason.

The Ravens pulled away from the Texans with 24 second-half points for a 34-10 win in the divisional round, setting up a showdown with the Chiefs at M&T Bank Stadium.

Everything seemed to be in their favor. Then, everything fell apart in the AFC Championship Game, where the Ravens were overmatched by Kansas City in a dispiriting 17-10 loss.

It’s a loss that could haunt the franchise for years.

“The disappointment in the loss in the AFC Championship Game has several layers,” said Mark Viviano, sports anchor at WJZ and co-host of the “Purple Playbook” show. “The Ravens were clearly the league’s best team, loaded with win-now talent, guided by an all-star coaching staff, and playing at home. It’ll be a challenge to replicate that roster and performance, and coaching turnover has already begun.

“The AFC is a tough conference and with Joe Burrow, Deshaun Watson, Aaron Rodgers, and Justin Herbert expected to be back from injuries, there will potentially be more competition for the top seed and home-field advantage. Kansas City is still the king of the AFC until proven otherwise.”

The Ravens had a similar disappointment in 2019 when they were the No. 1 seed but lost to the Titans in the divisional round of the playoffs. That was a much younger team, and quarterback Lamar Jackson was just in his second year as an NFL quarterback.

The 2024 Ravens were built to win a championship but Kansas City looked every bit the defending champion, as the Ravens imploded in their biggest game.

The Ravens inexplicably got away from the running game, which was ranked No. 1 in the NFL. Jackson committed two costly turnovers and never effectively ran his run-pass option.

The Chiefs set the tone with two long-scoring drives to open the game, and the Ravens appeared to panic when they found themselves behind. The Chiefs knew the Ravens could crumble under the pressure of having to match Kansas City’s offense.

“We knew if we put up touchdowns, it was going to force their offense to feel a little bit antsy and a little bit pressed to get the ball downfield,” tight end Travis Kelce said on the “New Heights” podcast with his brother Jason. “That’s what we wanted. We wanted to see what our DBs and their wideouts looked like.”

Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson (8) runs as Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Ben Niemann (56) defends during the second half at M&T Bank Stadium. By Tommy Gilligan-USA Today Sports

The Ravens averaged 163.8 yards rushing per game in the regular season, but they ran the ball a season-low 16 times — eight by Jackson — for 81 yards against a Chiefs team that allowed 182 yards rushing to the Buffalo Bills the previous week.

The Chiefs held the ball for 37:30 compared to 22:30 for the Ravens. Baltimore was just 3-for-11 on third down. The Ravens also uncharacteristically lost their composure, incurring penalties for unnecessary roughness, roughing the passer and taunting inside the red zone.

“It was like they were chasing the ghosts of 2019 Mahomes and Kansas City and thought they had to win that game 34-33 instead of being smart and doing what it might take to actually win it, 18-17,” said Jason La Canfora, co-host of Inside Access on 105.7 and an NFL writer for The Washington Post. “[Chiefs coach] Andy Reid was twice as committed to the run as they were. That kinda says it all. Total failure of the offensive game plan. The biggest question after the game should have been whether or not they had more success running in heavy personnel with the fullback and multiple tight ends or whether they cut the Chiefs more running out of 11 personnel with sprints from Lamar and Justice [Hill].

“They totally missed the plot, and there’s no excuse for it. More runs, more designed quarterback runs and more scrambles were all in order, and none of it happened.”

Coach John Harbaugh said the Ravens used their two-minute offense at the end of the first half and for the entire fourth quarter, which minimized rushing attempts because the goal was to move the ball downfield quickly. The Ravens played as if they were in a rush to score, even though they never trailed by more than 10 points.

“I, for the life of me, can’t understand or will ever understand what was going on with the play-calling for the Baltimore Ravens and Todd Monken,” said former NFL offensive lineman Jeremiah Sirles on the O-Line Committee podcast. “You are the best rushing team in the entire NFL. You have been all year. You’ve been slaughtering teams and shoving it right down people’s throats all year. You only had 16 rushing attempts in the entire game.

“Todd Monken panicked. Todd Monken saw that he was playing Patrick Mahomes in the second half and called like he was down 21, instead of only being down 10. He went out there and was airing it out and throwing deep shots instead of just staying true to the identity of what this team was.”

The challenge now for the Ravens is equaling the past season’s success and getting another opportunity to reach the Super Bowl. With 22 unrestricted free agents, a tight salary cap, and a first-place schedule in 2024, it could be a tough road.

“It’s certainly not going to be easy,” La Canfora said. “They had a tremendous offseason last year and duplicating that would defy the odds a little bit. They obviously play in a very tough division and a very tough conference, and these opportunities, especially to host a championship game, don’t come around that often. They’ll be in the mix, but staying as healthy and getting the kind of performances they got across the board last year is asking a lot.”

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