The Baltimore Ravens spent the regular season redefining what seemed possible for a successful NFL offense. They leaned into Lamar Jackson's extraordinary dual-threat ability by attacking defenses with all the elements of deception: pre-snap motion, play fakes, zone-read. Jackson was encouraged to improvise, and he became a likely MVP winner as the Ravens rode their efficient, high-scoring unit to the top seed in the AFC.
And then, in their first playoff game, they were gone. The Tennessee Titans rolled into Baltimore one week after vanquishing the New England Patriots and obliterated the Ravens 28-12. The shock wasn't simply that the Titans won, but that they did it with such apparent ease, rolling to a 28-6 lead with more than four minutes still remaining in the third quarter. How did this happen?
Jackson put up 508 total yards - 365 passing, 143 rushing - but, unlike they did for most of the regular season, those numbers do not indicate what sort of game this was. The Titans won situationally: They forced the Ravens to play with a long field, made timely stops, and capitalized on those timely stops. They managed to corral Jackson just enough and just when it was most urgent.
Jackson and his pass-catchers made untimely mistakes, and the Titans built an early lead that allowed them to feed the ball to running back Derrick Henry. In turn, that forced the Ravens to abandon much of what they do best. Jackson attempted 59 passes, or 37% more than his single-game high during the regular season (43 in a Week 3 loss at Kansas City).
The Titans did this largely by crowding the line of scrimmage and by forcing the action toward the sidelines. Here's a great example from a second-quarter run on second-and-10 that went for a 2-yard loss:
Note the way linebacker Kamalei Correa feathered his way toward Jackson and didn't overpursue. That forced Jackson outside, where the Titans had lots of help. Cornerback Logan Ryan appeared to be covering wideout Willie Snead at the snap, but Ryan quickly recognized Jackson's intention to keep the ball and rushed right at him to make the stop.
As Ryan explained to Sports Illustrated's Albert Breer, the Titans borrowed some concepts from the Buffalo Bills, who limited Jackson to 185 total yards in December.
"It was a lot of what Buffalo did to them, where we have rules, real strict option-football rules, with an eight-man, nine-man box, and corners on their own," the corner said. "Buffalo played them like that. Buffalo played them really well. It's just, Buffalo's offense didn't score touchdowns."
The Titans did score touchdowns, and they did it early. Their first score followed safety Kevin Byard's interception of Jackson - a high throw that bounced off the hands of tight end Mark Andrews, who was playing on an injured ankle and couldn't fully extend for the ball. But the turnover, compounded by a penalty, set the Titans up at the Ravens' 35. Eight plays later they were in the end zone.
As Breer explained, the Titans didn't disguise coverages as much as the Bills did. But by containing the middle and forcing things outside, where their corners were frequently left alone in coverage, they made life difficult for Jackson.
Up front, the Titans communicated well and read their keys to prevent Jackson from slipping past the defense when he chose to keep the ball, as he so often managed to do during the season:
Tennessee's second touchdown came one play after they stopped the Ravens on fourth-and-1 near midfield on their subsequent possession. Fourth-down aggressiveness was a staple for Baltimore all year - the team was 8-for-8 on fourth-and-1, per The Athletic's Sheil Kapadia - and the probability of going for it in that spot was favorable, even if it didn't work.
It didn't work for a few reasons. First, Titans defensive end Jeffery Simmons held his ground despite being double-teamed. Second, Jackson opted not to run behind his pulling guard Bradley Bozeman. Instead, Jackson attempted to slide through a small hole that briefly opened up next to where Simmons was being doubled. But that hole quickly closed because rookie inside linebacker David Long - a sixth-round pick who played just 48 snaps during the regular season - jumped the gap to drag Jackson down.
The Titans capitalized on the next play when quarterback Ryan Tannehill used play-action before delivering a 45-yard touchdown pass to Kalif Raymond. Suddenly, it was 14-0. That deficit created problems for the Ravens, who hadn't had to play from behind for most of the season. Unlike the Chiefs during Sunday's comeback against the Texans, the Ravens panicked. This is what happened:
It didn't help that running back Mark Ingram was banged up, or that the Ravens' pass-catchers dropped six passes - uncommon for a team that had the eighth-lowest drop rate (4.1%) during the regular season, according to Football Outsiders. But the Ravens tried to escape their hole by relying much too heavily on Jackson to bail them out.
Another major factor was field position: The Ravens had to go a long way pretty much every time they got the ball. During the regular season, their average starting field position was their own 29-yard line, which ranked sixth in the league. Against the Titans, their drives began on average from their own 20. Twice, the Ravens were penalized on punts that had gone into the end zone for touchbacks. The result was a pair of drives that began on their own 10 and 5, respectively.
In the third quarter, the Ravens used 12 plays to drive to the Titans' 18, where they were again stopped on fourth-and-1. Three plays later, Henry dashed 66 yards to set up his own trick-play TD pass to make it 21-6. It was one of just two Titans possessions that covered more than 35 yards, but it didn't matter. Jackson would lose a fumble and toss an interception on the Ravens' next two series.
The Titans' defense was 16th in DVOA during the regular season, yet it's solved Tom Brady and Lamar Jackson in back-to-back road games. Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs were last seen hanging 41 unanswered points (and 51 points total) on Houston after spotting the Texans a 24-point lead. What might the Titans have in store for him?
Dom Cosentino is a senior features writer at theScore.