BALTIMORE — Roquan Smith wasn’t afraid to wear his emotions on his sleeve after the Baltimore Ravens’ 17-10, season-ending loss to the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC championship game on Sunday. To see a man who plays with so much passion, swagger and force reduced to a human straining to compose himself in a news conference showed exactly how much this game meant to the Ravens.
“First and foremost, hats off to [the Chiefs],” Smith said with tears in his eyes. “They got the job done, but I just think it’s not getting the job done and just knowing our potential and the guys that you have in the locker room. We all put so much on the line, just like anyone else, and just let ourselves down in that position — it sucks.”
Roquan Smith after AFC Championship Game loss: “It hurts. It sucks.” pic.twitter.com/Khb1Uf61Gi
— Jamison Hensley (@jamisonhensley) January 28, 2024
This was supposed to be Baltimore’s shot to get back to the Super Bowl for the first time in a decade, but instead, the Ravens fell short to the team that currently looks like the most unstoppable force in the league.
Baltimore was the AFC's No. 1 seed and sported a top-flight defense and an MVP quarterback in Lamar Jackson. Despite a historically good regular season, the Ravens still fell short of their goal. There’s no real shame in losing to the souped up version of Tom Brady on the other side of the ball, but it’s hard not to feel like this season was a massive disappointment based on the Ravens' performance in the regular season.
“You really think about it, it’s tough because there’s a lot of things that have to go your way in order for you to get here,” Smith said. “And for us busting our tails day in and day out since OTAs with the coaches [and] with each other, having the attendance we had and just, like, knowing how each and every person cared about one another. It sucks. It's definitely going to add fuel in the offseason as well as the season coming up next year.”
Baltimore’s defense, led by coordinator and possible head-coach-to-be Mike Macdonald, pitched a shutout in the second half and largely had a strong day outside of two drives. If the Ravens had known coming into the game that they would hold the Chiefs to 17 points and zero in the second half, they probably would've felt good about their chances to win. Instead, Jackson and the Ravens offense struggled for most of Sunday and had a couple of costly turnovers in scoring range that might have provided a different outcome.
“It's crazy. We had some opportunities out there,” Jackson said. “We’ve just got to take advantage of them. [We] can't turn the ball over, fumble, [throw an] interception [or] stuff like that. That gave them opportunities to put points on the board and win the game. We get in that red zone, [and] it's been our touchdown all season.”
It was a completely uncharacteristic performance for a Ravens offense that was one of the league’s best all season. According to RBSDM.com, the Ravens ranked fourth in success rate all season, with an impressive mark of 47.4%. That fell to 40% against the Chiefs, which would've ranked 28th on the season. They couldn’t get anything going against a Chiefs defense that was locked in, combined with their own mistakes.
During the game, Jackson couldn't hide his frustration, particularly after a critical end-zone interception he threw to Deon Bush with 6:54 left and the Ravens trailing 17-7. Jackson slammed his helmet on the sideline in disgust shortly after the play.
Lamar Jackson slammed his helmet down after throwing an interception.
(📺: CBS) pic.twitter.com/RePtD7pevE
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) January 28, 2024
The Chiefs limited Jackson to one touchdown pass that came on a spectacular, first-quarter scramble in the pocket, on which Jackson found Zay Flowers for a 30-yard catch. That was pretty much the only fireworks from Jackson, other than a reception he made on a batted ball that accounted for 13 yards. Despite that highlight of a play, the Ravens ended up punting.
Even with the heartbreaking loss at home, Jackson had some quality perspective on what the Ravens accomplished this season. “I'm very proud of my team. [We had a] new system, offensive coordinator [Todd Monken and] different things,” Jackson explained. “[There were] different things we [saw like] motions [and] stuff like that. [We had] adversity at the beginning of the season. We [weren’t] playing well. People didn't know what the Ravens offense or defense was going to look like, and we made it all the way to this point. Our goal was short. We made it here, but we've just got to finish next time, but I'm very proud of my team [on] all phases.”
The hard part for the Ravens will be what all teams have to recognize when they have a bad performance such as this: It’s time to start over. There is no game next week, no rematch against the Chiefs — this is it. They have to live with this for the next several months. And it'll be hard to look at the self-inflicted wounds, which ranged from Flowers' ill-timed taunting penalty and fumble at the goal line to two roughing-the-passer calls of Patrick Mahomes to Kyle Van Noy getting baited into a personal foul call in a dustup with Travis Kelce. Smith's unnecessary roughness on the Chiefs' clock-killing final drive after he barreled through the line before the ball was snapped capped the Ravens' undisciplined play Sunday.
The organization will attempt to go at it again next season with a roster that will look much different from the team that made it to this point in the season. Perhaps that’s looking too far into the future on a fresh wound, but looking ahead is the only thing the Ravens can do right now.
Head coach John Harbaugh put it best in his postgame news conference. “There are so many stories on this team — so many individual stories,” he said somberly. “The message is, ‘Eyes straight ahead. [Keep] your chin up, your chest out, and understand what you did accomplish.’ I'm proud of them.”