The end is unkind to every team other than one, but the Ravens’ delivered an abrupt and rare torment. The Ravens’ unraveling at home against the Tennessee Titans gave rise to the notion that they had wasted a historic season, that their 14-2 magic carpet ride and Lamar Jackson’s MVP season dissolved into thin air. That none of it really mattered, because the point is to win, and the Ravens lost. The amount of truth in that idea is a matter of perspective that drives at the heart of what we all are doing investing so much of ourselves into these games.
The Ravens are finished playing football, and they did not win even one playoff game, let alone the Super Bowl. They were an awesome machine that provided, for months on end, unbridled wonder. To what degree the former invalidates the latter, if it does at all, is what Baltimore was left to resolve Sunday morning and for so many days and years ahead.
Even the players, in the immediate aftermath, struggled to identify how they should remember their season. Asked at a news conference how the Ravens should be remembered, Jackson said, “14-2.” Cornerback Marlon Humphrey told reporters the team’s legacy would be that it choked in the playoffs.
This fall, the Ravens had so many high points that it is difficult to isolate one apex. It might have come the night of Nov. 3, when the then-undefeated New England Patriots came to M&T Bank Stadium. The Patriots provided a standard for the Ravens to measure themselves, and the Ravens carved them to bits with a brutal and beautiful form of the sport. The stadium shook with a fever that bordered on religious. Jackson and the Ravens were not as good as their fans had hoped. They were better. They were a team even opposing fans flocked to, a team that a city could tie itself to and float away with.
Were those fans in rapture because their central nervous systems were telling their brains, “This outcome means the Ravens might be good enough to win the Super Bowl”? Or were they feeling a sensation that could be described as, “Lamar Jackson is reorganizing my concept of human physical possibility, and I feel alive because of it”? One feeling creates hope with a zero-sum end result of despair or joy. The other is fleeting, but its memory can never be touched.
Which is it? The answer is a curious feature of professional sports: Probably both, even though they are inherently in conflict. About 3 percent of teams win a championship. Does that mean the 97 percent are wasting their and everyone else’s time losing and choking like a bunch of losers and chokers? Of course not. You could attend any random Cavaliers-Hornets game this year and see feats of athleticism that, if you paid close enough attention, would knock you out of your chair. One thing about sports is that they matter as much as you want them to.
And yet, they do keep score, and they do hand out trophies. The tribal impulses that surface when “Home” has a different total than “Away” are no less a legitimate part of a sports fan’s condition than appreciation and awe.
Despite Humphrey’s contention that the Titans debacle rendered the Ravens chokers, the regular season that came before meant something that no bitterness at the end could spoil. How many kids in Baltimore watched Jackson and fell hard for football, or discovered in their thrill some new, small piece of their identity? In Baltimore, Ravens black and purple became a uniform. (A popular T-shirt made explicit what all the gear implied: It blared in graffiti-style lettering, “Lamar F------ Jackson.”) People who would otherwise be yelling at one another online instead exchanged high-fives and knowing nods. The Ravens, like a lot of teams that don’t win championships, made a lot of people all love the same thing.
The Ravens’ regular season was an accomplishment unto itself. Coaches promised they would revolutionize football, and whether that turns out to be true, they played it differently than any professional team ever had and used that style to dazzle and bludgeon every opponent for three straight months. They rushed for more yards than any team in NFL history, and Jackson led the league in touchdown passes. Gosh, were they fun.
Does one loss, no matter how horrible it felt, erase all of that? It can’t. It kind of does. It will feel sad for either a very long time or until the Ravens play again — or maybe, somehow, both at once.