BALTIMORE -- The game had ended as it had begun, with a Lamar Jackson fumble, the final one of his three the most devastating because it was the one that was lost, and the wild card playoff game and season was lost with it.
On Sunday, the future undeniably was the priority over the past or even the present. Flacco remained on the bench despite the complete ineptitude of the offense, despite Jackson's wild aim and the offensive line's sieve-like performance, for three and a half quarters. The Ravens fell behind from a series of paper cuts, field goals by the Los Angeles Chargers that barely drew blood against the Ravens' stellar defense. But those points accumulated and, by the time the Chargers were comfortable enough with their cushion that they softened up their defense, it was too late for Jackson to complete another miracle.
And so the Ravens lost 23-17 to the Chargers, who move on to play the New England Patriots in Foxborough in the Divisional Round next Sunday. The Chargers with Philip Rivers are 0-7 against the Patriots when Tom Brady has played. But the Chargers, who were manhandled by the Ravens just two weeks ago, showed Sunday a toughness and resilience that they have not always had to go along with their talent. In the twilight of Rivers' career, the Bolts might have their best chance to finally upend the AFC's world order.
Jackson's career is barely breaking into light and, for most of Sunday's game, he played like what he is: a 21-year-old making his first postseason start and facing, for the first time, a team that had already seen his style of play.
Jackson fumbled two early snaps, although the Ravens recovered them both -- coach John Harbaugh emphasized that ball security is priority No. 1 when offseason workouts begin. Jackson struggled throwing to the outside and was overwhelmed by the Chargers' pressure, taking seven sacks -- Harbaugh said, yes, Baltimore will become a good dropback passing team, too. With the Chargers loading up with defensive backs to get more speed on the field and daring Jackson to pass, he could neither run nor pass. At the end of the third quarter, the Ravens had run 33 offensive plays and had 7 yards passing and just 83 total.
Baltimore's defense and special teams kept giving the offense chances -- there was a partially blocked punt and a blocked field goal and the first nine Chargers drives ended with punts, field goals, a missed field goal and a fumble. And until the end, when the Bolts' defense finally stopped applying the pressure on Jackson, the Ravens could do nothing. Over their last seven regular-season games, the Ravens went 6-1 and rushed for an average of 230 yards per content, with nine rushing touchdowns. The Chargers held them to zero touchdowns and just 90 rushing yards Sunday. Los Angeles had deciphered Baltimore's unorthodox offense the second time around. What the Ravens do to tailor an offense to Jackson while improving his throwing will consume their offseason and chart a course for the franchise's next decade.
Jackson was clearly upset after the game with his own play, saying he had a lot of things to work on.
"We just played like we didn't want to be here," he said. "I did, not my team. I feel like I played poorly."
Those frantic final minutes, when Jackson twice hit Michael Crabtree for touchdowns, provided a glimpse of what the Ravens hope they have in Jackson. There was the astonishing improvisation and the deep passes that give a peek of what Baltimore will try to hone and harness this offseason. But for most of the game, Jackson played so poorly that all eyes were back on Flacco, who occasionally warmed up his arm and shared a few words with Harbaugh, before he resumed his place on the bench, hat on head. There was no last chance to finish his career here with the heroics he once provided on the way to a Super Bowl championship.
Harbaugh said he had considered every possibility during the game, including inserting Flacco. But, he said, everybody was on the same page with the decision to stick with Jackson. Including Flacco, who said later he was not even frustrated that he did not get a chance to play. And Harbaugh was redeemed -- or maybe bailed out -- by Jackson's play down the stretch. He had cast his lot with the quarterback with whom he will go into next season and beyond, not the one he had hoisted a Lombardi Trophy with. For a while, with agitated fans booing the decision, it looked as if he had sacrificed these playoffs for Jackson's well-being.
"In the end -- talk about the fourth quarter -- Lamar played really well in two-minute," Harbaugh said. "I don't think Joe would have played any better in two-minute than Lamar did. You have to say, based on that part of it, at that point in time in the game, it was the right decision."
It was, most assuredly, a decision for the future. To bench Jackson at the start of the second half or even at the start of the fourth quarter would have indicated a lack of confidence in the quarterback who, Harbaugh declared, is the guy going forward.
"No question about that," Harbaugh said.
That's at least one thing that is settled in Baltimore. Suggs and Eric Weddle, cornerstones of the defense, both addressed their uncertain futures. Harbaugh was frank about Flacco's, stating the obvious. The quarterback who Harbaugh identified as the best in franchise history will be elsewhere next season.
"Joe can still play," Harbaugh said. "Joe's going to have a market. A lot of teams are going to want Joe. I'll be in Joe's corner, wherever he's at, unless we play him. He's special."
Harbaugh's course is slightly less clear. Before Jackson led the Ravens' dramatic turnaround, it seemed likely that Harbaugh and the Ravens would go their separate ways. But before the regular season even ended, and with speculation swirling that other teams would leap at the chance to hire Harbaugh if he was let go, the Ravens put out a statement declaring their intent to keep Harbaugh and to work on an extension to his contract that expires at the end of next season. With no finality to extension talks, the questions remain about whether any of the eight teams in search of a new head coach will try to pry Harbaugh from Baltimore.
With the Ravens now eliminated, we are likely to find out in the coming days. Harbaugh was as adamant as he could be about remaining in Baltimore without entirely slamming the door on anything else. Asked if there was a question about his own future, he replied: "I don't believe so."
He continued: "There's a Bible verse that basically says, 'Make no oath.' No one can say what tomorrow is going to bring, other than God willing. We'll see. We'll see what God has in store. I have every expectation, every plan, to be here as long as they want me here, and I believe I'll be here. I think that's been made clear by them, to me, over the last few weeks. Like I said a couple weeks ago -- or last week -- I love everybody in the organization. They're great people. I expect to go forward with that as long as that's what they want to do. I do believe that's what they want to do. Let's roll."