OWINGS MILLS, Md. (AP) — Less than 24 hours after Baltimore’s season ended with a loss in the AFC championship game, All-Pro safety Kyle Hamilton was dealing with both physical and emotional pain.
“Body is sore, heart sore,” he said. “But we move on.”
The Ravens head into the offseason lamenting an opportunity that got away. Baltimore finished with the best record and best point differential in the NFL and beat other top teams in surprisingly convincing fashion down the stretch, but in their most important test last weekend, the Ravens still couldn’t completely break through against the team that’s dominated the AFC of late.
Baltimore didn’t seem outclassed in its 17-10 loss to Kansas City, but the Ravens were way too mistake-prone after falling behind early. Experience doesn’t decide all NFL postseason games, but in this one, the Chiefs looked like a team that was playing in its sixth straight conference title game. The Ravens? They looked like they were in their first in over a decade.
Baltimore (14-5) hadn’t made it this far since winning the Super Bowl 11 years ago. This season was the first time the city hosted the AFC championship game since 1971.
Kansas City appeared vulnerable, with an offense that wasn’t nearly as scary as in years past, but the Ravens turned the ball over three times, committed silly penalties and struggled all game offensively.
“Being up in years, you only have so many more shots to do this,” 33-year-old guard Kevin Zeitler said. “This was a great team, executing at a high level. It was really fun to be a part of, and like I said, it feels really unfinished.”
Not only do the Chiefs loom as the league power that won’t go away, but next season the Ravens will have to deal with a Cincinnati team that should have Joe Burrow back from his injury-plagued 2023. Buffalo, Cleveland, Houston and Miami also have enough talent to be formidable.
The Ravens have a star quarterback in Lamar Jackson, a star linebacker in Roquan Smith and a star in Hamilton who just finished his second season. But there will be changes. This is a team with some solid young players, but also one with plenty of veterans who may need replacing.
“The group, you won’t get it back again next year,” edge rusher Jadeveon Clowney said. “I felt like we had a squad to win it. … I really did. It kind of hurt more than anything that has happened in my career to lose that game yesterday. But we’re back to the drawing board.”
Zeitler is one starter whose contract is expiring. Linebacker Patrick Queen is another, along with defensive tackle Justin Madubuike. It might not be as stressful an offseason as last year, when the team had to use the franchise tag on Jackson before finally reaching a long-term deal with him, but the next few months will be consequential for Baltimore.
Clowney signed a one-year deal in August and then equaled a career high with 9 1/2 sacks. He may be tough to keep and tough to replace. Odell Beckham Jr. and Nelson Agholor boosted the receiving corps on one-year deals. Running backs Gus Edwards and J.K. Dobbins can also test free agency. Dobbins missed almost the entire season because of an Achilles tendon injury.
MORE TO PROVE
Jackson might win his second MVP this season, but it was probably inevitable that he’d be blamed for anything less than a Super Bowl. Hamilton took exception to that.
“They can say he’s the best quarterback ever one week, and then the next week, say whatever they want to say. But that just comes with the territory,” Hamilton said. “Heavy is the head that wears the crown. So, there are a lot of people out there hoping for people like Lamar to fail, but we all know that he’s the best player in this league, and I’m glad to have him on our team.”
CLEARING THE AIR
Ravens kicker Justin Tucker said he thought his pregame interaction with Kansas City’s Travis Kelce and Patrick Mahomes was not a big deal.
“I saw Patrick there trying to warm up and get some dropbacks and he asked me, while I was on the ground stretching, if I could move my helmet. I happily got up and I moved my helmet out of the way — at least I thought it was enough out of the way,” Tucker said. “And then Travis comes over and he just kicks my stuff and he throws my helmet. … I thought it was all just some gamesmanship, you know, all in good fun, but they seemed to be taking it a little bit more seriously. I’m totally willing to let it all go, but I just wanted to explain that that’s just what I have done for 12 years and it’s not like I’m out there trying to be problematic.”
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