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Upset Ravens left reeling after Divisional Round loss to Titans

BALTIMORE -- Mike Vrabel marched along his sideline, the meltdown initiated by his Tennessee Titans engulfing the Baltimore Ravens, a small smirk -- his default expression, truthfully -- on his face.

Derrick Henry had just thrown a jump-pass touchdown to put the Titans up by 22 points and the AFC playoffs had been upended for the second week in a row by a team that is so relatively anonymous reporters had to double check exactly when Dean Pees, the architect of the Titans defense that stifled the most electrifying offense of the season, had quit the Ravens and gone to work for the Titans. The answer is 2018.

It's about time to start the crash course on the Titans, because they have crashed the playoffs that were supposed to be dominated by the blueblood quarterbacks. Last week, they sent Tom Brady and the defending Super Bowl champions home and, perhaps even more stunning, on Saturday they throttled the presumed league MVP Lamar Jackson and the AFC's top seed, forcing him into three turnovers and two failed fourth-and-1 attempts in a 28-12 victory. They will play the winner of the Houston-Kansas City game for the AFC Championship and a spot in the Super Bowl.

"Pro Bowl?" Jackson said, when asked about his plans for the next few weeks. "I wanted to be in the Super Bowl."

That they did not even reach the AFC championship, and a potential dream matchup with the Chiefs' Patrick Mahomes, will haunt the Ravens this offseason. As will the obvious question: How did a three-week rest for some key players, including Jackson, affect the Ravens' offense when faced with a team that has been in must-win mode for a month. Jackson said having the final regular season game off, followed by a bye, was not the problem.

"I feel like we were too excited," Jackson said. "We just got out of our element a little too fast, trying to beat them to the punch. We just were slow today a little bit."

But Coach John Harbaugh was not so adamant if the long layoff may have slowed his team./p>

"I don't have that answer," he said. "It's unanswerable. Our guys practiced really hard and did the best they could, but we didn't play a sharp football game, for sure. What should you attribute that to? I guess you can theorize a lot of different things."

In the locker room, the players were more blunt. Mark Ingram, whose left calf was heavily wrapped throughout the game and who ran for just 22 yards, said the Ravens got their butts kicked.

"This team's identity right now is to get to the playoffs and choke. It is what it is. That's just the hard truth," said cornerback Marlon Humphrey. Asked how this team should be remembered, he replied: "As losers, I guess."

The Titans played a brutally physical, fearless game, dominating the lines of scrimmage. Quarterback Ryan Tannehill threw for just 88 yards, but Henry, the mammoth running back, ran for 195, including a gut-punch of a 66-yard run that set up a third touchdown right after Jackson had been stuffed on a fourth-and-1 try. The Ravens had converted 71 percent of fourth down tries during the regular season, but Jackson had nowhere to go against the Titans' defensive push. Jackson accounted for 508 scrimmage yards, although many of them came when the game was out of hand.

The Titans' plan was simple in idea and so difficult to execute that few other Ravens opponents had managed it. They badly wanted to keep the Ravens from taking an early lead as they had done most of the season. And they wanted to force Jackson to run laterally. They had eight or nine players near the line of scrimmage to stifle Jackson and force him to throw. On the Ravens' very first drive, a Jackson pass was tipped and intercepted, the first one he had thrown on an opening drive this year and just his seventh INT of the season. And most of all, they were not awed, as other Ravens opponents had been, by their first look at Jackson's dazzling speed.

"We saw when he was gaining yards," Vrabel said. "He was getting them between the hashes and the numbers. When we defended from number to number and made him go laterally, they weren't big plays."

As soon as they fell behind, the Ravens all but abandoned the run.

There was a strange dynamic among the Ravens. Some players like Ingram and Humphrey were unsparing in their assessment of how the Ravens failed, with Humphrey noting that this team will not be the same next year. Not far away, 13-year guard Mashal Yanda declined to discuss his future.

But Jackson was already looking ahead. He has the benefit of youth to allow his two career playoff losses to fade.

"This is my second year in the league," he said. "Many people aren't able to bring it to the playoffs.

"We're a young team, especially on our offense. We're going to get better. We only can get better. It's only up from here."

That, of course, is not necessarily the case. With home-field advantage and the Patriots out of the picture, the Ravens had an ideal opportunity to reach the Super Bowl. Instead, they will likely take home a load of regular season awards for Jackson and Harbaugh, and they will go back to work, the next great thing not yet fully arrived.

"Oh, it's going to be the same answer every time," Jackson said. "I've got to work on everything. There's always room for improvement."

And for that first playoff win.

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.

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