BALTIMORE — Outside the Baltimore Ravens’ locker room, about 90 minutes after he walked off the M&T Bank Stadium field, Lamar Jackson sat down on a purple plastic chair. The hood on his black sweatshirt covered his head. He talked on his phone and chatted with a Ravens security official. He held two white plastic shopping bags packed with catered soul food. He rose and started walking down the hall.
“All right, man, next year,” a security guard said as Jackson bumped his fist. The quarterback hugged another security guard, scrunching down to her level.
“Love you, man!” a man yelled at him. “MVP!”
Jackson turned and nodded. He kept walking down the hall, past smiling people in red-and-yellow gear and workers loading bags and crates into the Kansas City Chiefs’ equipment truck. He could smell cigar smoke wafting from the visiting locker room. He could hear rap music bumping from the speakers inside. Jackson kept walking, turned right down a ramp and headed into the misty night, into an offseason that arrived too soon.
The end came abruptly, the only way it ever does in the NFL. Jackson had a surpassing season, one that will presumably earn him his second MVP award at 27. He had advanced further than he ever had before, mastering a new offensive system and validating the $260 million contract extension he signed in the spring. Teammates and coaches remarked all season about his enhanced focus and dedication.
In the franchise’s most momentous game in a decade, though, Jackson mustered a single touchdown in the Ravens’ 17-10 loss to the Chiefs in the AFC championship game. On the night the Ravens drafted him in 2018, Jackson vowed on the stage that he would deliver Baltimore a Super Bowl. On Sunday, he stared down Patrick Mahomes at home, one game away, and discovered how far he still had to go.
“I’m not frustrated at all,” Jackson said. “I’m angry about losing a game away from the Super Bowl. We’ve been waiting all this time, all these moments, for an opportunity like this, and we fell short.”
The bitter end to Jackson’s season included flashes of incandescence and swaths of aggravation. He dodged sacks, floated deep completions and, on one play in the first half, caught his own pass after a defender batted it in the air. Jackson completed 20 of 37 passes for 272 yards, only 57 of which came in the first half. For long stretches, he could not solve a Kansas City defense that crowded the line of scrimmage and plastered his wide receivers. He threw a crucial interception into triple coverage in the end zone with 6:45 left.
“I told him, ‘Stand up tall,’ ” Ravens Coach John Harbaugh said. “He’s had a great season. His performance today was all heart. He fought. He went out there and gave everything he had.”
For a player of his achievements and talent, Jackson finds himself under a harsh glare. He entered the postseason with one career playoff victory. Despite the way he controlled games this season with crisp passing and decision-making, many critics dismissed him as a great athlete unable to summon the necessary throws in clutch moments.
Jackson’s teammates see and resent the spotlight he operates under. Losing left many of them disappointed that an aborted playoff run will only make the glare harsher. Rather than display his talent on the grandest stage, Jackson will endure another offseason of doubt about whether he can reach it.
“Honestly, that’s what hurts me the most,” linebacker Patrick Queen said in a pin-drop-quiet locker room. “I wanted to get that guy the recognition that he deserves. It’s a team sport; it’s a team effort; you want to play for each other. But that was the main guy I was playing for, honestly. There’s so much stuff he gets that he doesn’t deserve. This was his opportunity to be able to write some of that stuff off and go to the next dance. That’s why it hurts the way it hurts.
“He’s a competitor. He’s a leader. He’s everything that they say he’s not. You can’t just look at one game.”
Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo designed his game plan around Jackson. “It all starts with 8,” Kansas City linebacker Drue Tranquill said. “He’s the best player on their team. He’s an MVP-caliber player.” They emphasized keeping Jackson contained in the pocket when they rushed him. They crowded the middle of the field and jammed the wide receivers. They blitzed him, from all over. Jackson noted that they jumped intermediate routes. Afterward, several Chiefs defenders celebrated in T-shirts that read “In Spags We Trust.”
“We threw the book at Lamar, man,” Chiefs safety Justin Reid said. “It took everything: zone pressures, man pressures, fake pressures that looked like pressures and ended up being zone drops. We tried to do as much as we could to confuse him and not give him the same look twice.”
As he walked out of the stadium, Spagnuolo breathed deep and widened his eyes when asked to consider the challenge of defending Jackson. “The guy can catch his own pass!” Spagnuolo exclaimed.
Even in a loss, Jackson provided what may been the game’s most memorable play. In the second quarter, he tried to rifle a pass over the middle, only for it to be batted high in the air. Jackson bolted past multiple Chiefs defenders, snared the ball himself and sprinted for a 13-yard gain. In the middle of the AFC championship, the presumptive MVP had impersonated Bugs Bunny circling the bases against the Gas-House Gorillas.
“Any of the other 31 quarterbacks, I would have got that interception,” said Reid, the closest pursuer to the batted pass. “Lamar is such a special athlete.”
That drive, though, fizzled like so many others. Baltimore’s only touchdown came in the first quarter, when Jackson dropped back and conjured a miracle. Outside linebacker Leo Chenal swarmed him. Jackson ducked below his grasp, backpedaled and bounced on his toes, buying more than seven seconds before he floated a 30-yard pass to Zay Flowers at the goal line.
Otherwise, the Chiefs stymied Jackson. He piled up yardage late, finally connecting with wide receivers Odell Beckham Jr. and Nelson Agholor; before the fourth quarter, Flowers had been the lone Ravens wideout with a catch. Late in the game, as Jackson neared a score that could have brought the Ravens within one possession, he made his worst mistake of the day.
A drive that began at the Baltimore 1-yard line and included a massive fourth-and-three conversion had reached the Kansas City 25 with less than seven minutes to go. Jackson surveyed the defense and saw two safeties deep, leaving what he thought would be a gap in the middle of the field. He launched a pass to tight end Isaiah Likely, careful not to overthrow it out of the end zone to give Likely a chance, hoping he could at least draw a pass interference flag. The space Jackson anticipated closed, with three defensive backs around Likely. Safety Deon Bush swooped in and picked off the pass.
“We had some opportunities out there,” Jackson said. “We got to take advantage of them. We can’t turn the ball over. We get in the red zone, it’s been our touchdown all season. We just got to finish it. We didn’t do a good job of finishing.”
Jackson expressed remorse that Baltimore’s defense had yielded only 17 points to Mahomes, none in the second half, and its offense had not capitalized. Jackson can only wait until next season. He will have chances to return.
“Thirty years from now, we’ll speak Lamar Jackson’s name, and everyone is going to know and remember,” Beckham said. “There’s certain defining moments in your career. And this is just one that will be in his career. The greats have all been through tough times. I don’t think this is going to stop him from getting to his ultimate goal.”
Beckham later added, astutely, that nothing in the NFL is “surefire.” The Ravens have more than 20 free agents, and reshaping their roster will grow harder as they dedicate a large portion of their salary cap to their quarterback. Jackson was healthy all season for the first time in three years. The Ravens did not have to deal with a healthy Joe Burrow or Deshaun Watson in the AFC North. Their coaching staff might get picked over. The Ravens’ infrastructure and Jackson’s talent make them a likely contender. It is far from guaranteed.
On Sunday night, Jackson sat in his corner of the Ravens’ nearly empty locker room. Most teammates had left quickly. Queen and Beckham chatted with him as he sat in his stall in a towel. Jackson eventually dressed and left, walking past the Chiefs’ locker room on the way into the offseason, past everything he wanted.
“Nobody thought we were going to be in this position,” he said. “New system, new guys, a whole new team. Nobody thought we would be in this position, but we was. Next time, we just got to finish it.”