The ugly 28-12 loss was an unexpected finishing blow to Baltimore's magical season. It did not, however, represent the closing of an era, which could be coming for the New England Patriots and New Orleans Saints.
The Ravens return the best player in football this season, at least 10 Pro Bowl players and more salary cap room than they've had in recent memory. The players are still gnashing their teeth over a massively squandered opportunity. But they can start to smile about what lies ahead.
"This run is not over," defensive back Brandon Carr said. "We have a lot of amazing guys in the locker room. The chemistry is still here. The core guys will remain, so continue to build and get ready for next year, because we’ll come at you again."
The Ravens' optimism begins with quarterback Lamar Jackson, who will likely win NFL Most Valuable Player. Since taking over as Baltimore's starter in Week 11 of 2018, Jackson has produced the most wins (19) and touchdowns (52) in the league.
In addition to bringing back Jackson's throws in the red zone and dazzling running in the open field, the Ravens return every starter from an offense that led the NFL in scoring (33.2 points per game) and set the league record for most rushing yards in a season (3,296 yards). The foundation is there for Jackson to throw downfield strikes to tight end Mark Andrews and wide receiver Marquise Brown for the foreseeable future.
On defense, Baltimore has three unrestricted free agents (linebacker Matthew Judon, defensive tackle Michael Pierce and middle linebacker Josh Bynes), but it has the resources to make the defense even more talented next season. The Ravens have nine draft picks, including the potential for six in the first four rounds if they receive two fourth-round compensatory selections. Eric DeCosta, the team's second-year general manager, also has over $30 million in salary cap space now that quarterback Joe Flacco's cap hits are finally off the books.
Plus, the Ravens return both of their coordinators. Greg Roman and Don “Wink” Martindale are back after having interviewed for head coaching jobs this month.
"We’re going to get better. We only can get better," Jackson said. "It’s only [up] from here."
The Ravens will talk from now until the start of the season about how this bitter postseason loss will motivate them. But it will be a challenge to match such a special season. This marked the first time in the franchise's 24 years of existence that the Ravens won 14 or more games in the regular season and captured the No. 1 seed. Everything seemed to fall the Ravens' way in that season-ending 12-game winning streak, from the big plays on offense to the touchdowns on defense to the relatively good health.
NFL history says Baltimore can bounce back. The Ravens became the sixth team since the NFL playoffs began in 1933 to win at least 14 games in a season but fail to win a playoff game, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
How did those five previous teams fare the next year? All won double-digit victories and earned a top-3 seed. Only one (the Indianapolis Colts in 2006) rebounded to win the Super Bowl.
"We all had a hell of a season. We can build off of this, and that’s the best part," wide receiver Willie Snead IV said. "It’s unfortunate that we lost this game, but I think next year will be a lot better. We’ll be more developed as an offense, and I think we’ll take that next step that we need."
In many ways, the Ravens are viewed to be ahead of the curve. Jackson was in his second season. The defense had lost core leaders in Terrell Suggs, Eric Weddle and C.J. Mosley last offseason. Baltimore was considered the third-best team in the AFC North and ended up winning the division by six games.
The priorities are upgrading the pass rush (edge and interior) and finding another playmaking wide receiver, inside linebacker and interior offensive lineman.
The biggest decision is Judon, who led the NFL's No. 4 defense with 9.5 sacks. Baltimore lost pass rusher Za'Darius Smith in free agency last year and could use the franchise tag on Judon in order to keep him. But the team has tagged only one player (kicker Justin Tucker) since 2013.
Judon acknowledged that he thought that his last game could be his final one for the Ravens.
"I'm forever grateful to them," Judon said. "But ultimately, that's a decision that comes from them and me. We have to sit down and talk about some things and my agency. We have to see, but for the last four years and this whole year, I couldn't ask for anything else."
The Ravens have shown before that they can pick themselves up from an emotional punch to the gut in the postseason. Baltimore won the Super Bowl in 2012, a year after the heartbreak in the 2011 AFC championship game.
Whether Jackson and these Ravens can do the same remains to be seen. But those in the locker room after Saturday's playoff loss believe this is the start of their journey, not the end of it.
"There’s a lot to look forward to," Andrews said. "Obviously, it’s hard to do that right now, but there’s so much coming back. We have all the pieces. This is a young group ... and I’m excited to get back here and start working again, to be honest with you. This sucks to be in this position, but we’ve got the guys that are hungry and have the will to prove everyone wrong."