BALTIMORE — It was shortly after 3:30 p.m. on a windy Sunday afternoon inside M&T Bank Stadium when Lamar Jackson jogged into the Baltimore Ravens’ huddle to start his team’s first drive of the fourth quarter.
Thousands in the sellout crowd of 70,432 erupted in boos. Cries of “Put in Flacco!” could be heard clearly from many of the not-so-faithful in purple.
How quickly they forget.
Just as Joe Flacco, the quarterback who had once led the Ravens to a Super Bowl victory, had become yesterday’s news while Jackson was leading the Ravens to a 6-1 record and the AFC North title during the past two months, Jackson had lost the faith of the fans. Many of those same people who had pilloried Flacco early in the season were asking to get him back on the field.
The Ravens were trailing the Los Angeles Chargers by 17 at that moment, and there was no doubting that Jackson’s day had been a nightmare. His passer rating through three quarters was 0.0. That’s not a typo. He had completed 3 of 10 passes for 25 yards and had been sacked five times.
In the third quarter, the Ravens had blocked a field goal, blocked a punt and recovered a fumble. All of that had produced only a 33-yard Justin Tucker field goal and a 50-yard Tucker miss when Coach John Harbaugh decided against going for a first down on a fourth and two at the Los Angeles 32-yard-line.
“We just played like we didn’t want to be here,” Jackson said of those first three quarters. “I did, not my team. I feel like I played poorly. There were a lot of things we could have done — I could have done — to put us in a better situation. We have to get a move on to get ready for next year.”
This year is over for the Ravens, even though they managed to rally — without Flacco ever seeing the field — to close the gap to 23-17, getting the ball with less than a minute remaining and the chance to take the lead. They did so in large part because the Chargers, who had played so well for three quarters, went to a prevent defense that finally allowed Jackson time to throw and made critical errors on both sides of the ball.
It was just too little, too late, and the game ended with Jackson being strip-sacked by the Chargers’ Uchenna Nwosu on a snap from the Baltimore 47 with 26 seconds left. Melvin Ingram fell on the ball, ending the Ravens’ season.
“They played winning football,” Ravens Coach John Harbaugh said. “Playoff football is complementary football. Need all three phases to play well. All three phases competed, but we just didn’t play our best game.”
Playoff football is different. The Ravens had beaten the Chargers in Los Angeles two weeks earlier, their defense dominating while the Jackson-led run-first offense did enough to win the game with relative ease.
But facing a good team twice in three weeks — even playing at home — is never easy. And in the playoffs, everyone knows at the start of every game that it’s win or go home. From the start, the Chargers had extra safeties on the field in place of linebackers to account for Jackson’s speed and elusiveness. On the game’s opening play, Jackson took off on one of the run-pass option runs he had had so much success with and was tackled for a one-yard loss by Chargers rookie safety Derwin James.
That turned out to be a harbinger. The extra speed added to the Chargers’ defense helped them attack and contain Jackson for most of the afternoon.
Jackson, playing his first postseason game, and the Ravens, playing their first since 2014, were clearly tight in the early going. During one stretch, they fumbled the ball on three straight plays, recovering the first two by Jackson but losing the third, from running back Kenneth Dixon. The Chargers took over at the Baltimore 15-yard line, which led to the first of Michael Badgley’s five field goals and a 3-0 lead.
Badgley’s leg and the Los Angeles defense controlled the first half. The Ravens had six possessions: punt, fumble, punt, punt, interception, punt. Only the fact that the Ravens’ defense kept the Chargers out of the end zone allowed them to be within striking distance, down 12-0 at the break.
That was when the Flacco questions began. Clearly, Los Angeles had adjusted its defense to force Jackson to throw more — often with little time. Should the Ravens force the Chargers to change their defense again by going back to Flacco, a dropback passer with a stronger arm, who might be able to open things up in the L.A. secondary?
Harbaugh admitted he thought about it. He could even be seen talking to Flacco on the bench early in the third quarter, leading to speculation he was going to make a change.
But he never did, even as the offense sputtered through the third quarter. It was after the Chargers had stretched their lead to 20-3 on the second play of the fourth quarter that the booing reached a crescendo when Harbaugh stuck with Jackson.
“We certainly thought about it, certainly talked about it with everybody,” Harbaugh said. “I can tell you this, everybody was on the same page with what we did. Everybody, including Joe. That’s where it was at.”
Helped by the Chargers backing off their defense with a 23-3 lead, Jackson was able to engineer two touchdown drives that cut the score to 23-17 with 1:59 left. By then, the boos had stopped and those who hadn’t headed for the parking lots early were back on the Jackson bandwagon. When the Ravens got a three-and-out, helped by a foolish and controversial holding penalty by Chargers tackle Russell Okung that wiped out what would have been a game-clinching first-down run by Melvin Gordon, the building was electric. A miracle seemed possible.
All the Ravens had to do was go 66 yards in 45 seconds with no timeouts left. Difficult, certainly, but not impossible.
Except it wasn’t to be. The Ravens came up 57 yards shy of a miracle finish after Jackson’s fumble.
The Chargers are on to New England, the Ravens to the offseason. Harbaugh left no doubt that, Sunday’s performance aside, Jackson is now the Ravens’ starting quarterback. Flacco — after 11 seasons — will be traded.
“It’s not in my hands,” Flacco, who turns 34 later this month, said of his future, which is true because he’s still under contract next season. He added that he had never expected to play Sunday, then dressed quickly and headed for the exit of the locker room.
“Lamar’s our quarterback going forward,” Harbaugh said. “Joe Flacco is going to play really well in this league. . . . Joe is going to have a market. A lot of teams are going to want Joe.”
For a while this afternoon, the fans who cheered Flacco so often in the past wanted him, too.
Jackson’s time in Baltimore is just beginning, even though it is over for this season. Flacco’s time — after six postseason trips as the starting quarterback — is over. The building where he was a hero for so long now belongs to Jackson.
For more by John Feinstein, visit washingtonpost.com/feinstein.