Crazy days like Sunday are why America loves football, proof that the NFL is the best reality show going.
Heavy snow, at least by Baltimore standards, covered the field before the game and was so thick during it that all the Ravens could see on the other sideline -- and just barely -- were the purple pants worn by the Minnesota Vikings. The air was cold. Limbs were numb. The playing surface was so slick that a Zamboni or three would have come in handy. Mother Nature dominated the first three quarters before hitting the showers so the Ravens and Vikings could play maybe the most exciting fourth quarter in franchise history.
The desperate Ravens, who squandered opportunities all afternoon, found themselves down by five points midway through the final quarter when they embarked on what at the time appeared to be a game-winning touchdown drive. But amid the lingering snow flurries came a flurry of thrills, chills and touchdowns that players from both teams were trying to wrap their heads around a half hour after the ride came to a stop.
"I have nothing for you, really," said quarterback Joe Flacco, a knit Ravens cap on his head and a wide grin across his face after he walked up to the podium. "Oh my gosh, I don't know if there has ever been a crazier minute-and-forty-some seconds ever."
Technically, it was five touchdowns in 125 seconds, the final score coming with four seconds on the clock, giving the Ravens a huge 29-26 win over the Vikings.
The Ravens pulled ahead when tight end Dennis Pitta caught a one-yard touchdown pass on fourth down to cap off a nine-play, 64-yard drive put the Ravens up, 15-12. As Pitta jogged to the sideline, he thought to himself that he had just scored the game-winner. Actually, the two teams were just getting started. After all, what has transpired throughout this odd season showed us that no lead is apparently safe when the Ravens defense is on the field late in the fourth quarter.
It would take the Vikings two plays and 38 seconds to reclaim the lead, the touchdown coming when running back Toby Gerhart, in for the injured Adrian Peterson, took an innocent-looking draw play 41 yards for a touchdown. He ran right through the heart of the defense, splitting safeties Matt Elam and James Ihedigbo.
The Ravens responded immediately. Jacoby Jones took the ensuing kickoff 77 yards down the Ravens sideline -- where no opposing coaches were there to trip him up -- for a touchdown, bringing the M&T Bank Stadium crowd back to live. The return took just 11 seconds. If only Jones could have stalled for 76 more seconds.
The defense got another shot at redemption, but let it slip through its grasp when electrifying rookie wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson caught a screen pass behind the line of scrimmage and weaved through the defense. Elam, the last line of defense, slipped and fell on his butt as if he thought it was a good time to make an impromptu snow angel. Patterson cruised by him on his way to the end zone for a 79-yard touchdown pass that put the Vikings up, 26-22, with 45 seconds left.
"We thought the game was over four times," Vikings defensive end Jared Allen said.
So did many of the fans, including the ones who blew up my Twitter feed in those frantic final moments. I'm sure there were a few folks watching at home who turned off the TV and stormed outside to furiously shovel the walk.
The drama was not yet done, though. Flacco, Mr. Clutch again, led the Ravens 80 yards in the final minute, an incredible accomplishment in itself on most other Sundays, and put the Ravens ahead for good when he found rookie wide receiver Marlon Brown, who tapped both feet in the back of the end zone after the catch.
As the Ravens ran off the field and down the tunnel to the locker room, right guard Marshal Yanda summed up the day when he said, "Jesus Christ. Best game ever."
Asked if he had ever played a game like this one before, defensive tackle Arthur Jones quipped, "Yeah. On 'Madden.'"
The crazy win kept the Ravens in control of their playoff destiny, a notch ahead of the Miami Dolphins, who are also 7-6 after knocking off the Pittsburgh Steelers.
It also kept fans -- from Baltimore to Minneapolis and beyond -- on their edges of their seats for what will probably be remembered as the craziest game in 2013. Games like this one, with lead changes, long touchdowns left and right, and the elements making things interesting, are why the NFL is the best show on television.
Sorry, Ron Swanson and Don Draper.
One thing that I learned
The return of Pitta will be huge for Flacco and the Ravens. The Ravens were without the services as their emerging 28-year-old tight end/slot receiver for the first 13 weeks of the season, and not having him -- and the loss of wide receiver Anquan Boldin -- really effected Flacco, who has struggled on third down this season. In the second half Sunday, Pitta and Flacco started to click and Pitta was clutch. Five of his six catches came after halftime. Three of them moved the chains. And one was his go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter. He also drew a big pass interference penalty on the game's final drive. Pitta played about 35 snaps and after the game he said he felt fine, so look for him to play more and more down the stretch. Don't be surprised if he is their leading receiver from here on out.
Handing out game balls
My game balls go to the three Ravens players who scored what should have been game-winning touchdowns. Pitta, who had six catches for 48 yards, scored the first with 2:05 left. Jones returned a kickoff for the second on at the 1:16 mark. And Brown scored the decisive touchdown, his sixth of the season, with four seconds left.
This week's head-scratcher
I had no issue with the Ravens going for the first down on fourth down while within Justin Tucker's normal field-goal range in the second half. The field conditions were not ideal, and they were also short distances that the numbers say that the Ravens will usually be able to convert on. My issue was with the play call on the second one, when the Ravens faced 4th and 1 in the fourth quarter. The Ravens put out their heavy set with the lone wide receiver, Torrey Smith, close to the offensive line and handed the ball to fullback Vonta Leach, who was stuffed. The Ravens have struggled to run from their heavy set all season and there was not much mystery or deception on the play. I liked the gambling from Riverboat John, but in the future, the Ravens have to be a bit more creative when they roll the dice.
They said it (or tweeted it)
"It probably makes you tough. It probably makes you resilient. It probably puts a lot of callouses all over your psyche and your character. When you've got callouses on your character, that's probably a good thing." -- head coach John Harbaugh on what a roller-coaster win like this can do for a team going forward.
The stat that stands out
Seven -- lead changes during Sunday's crazy game, including five of them in the final 125 seconds. The two teams combined for 42 points in the fourth quarter.
Three (thoughts) and out
1. The numbers aren't exactly eye-popping, but running back Ray Rice had one of his best games of the season Sunday. He rushed for 67 yards on 17 carries -- that's 3.9 yards per pop -- and added five catches for 42 yards on five targets as he actually made defenders miss in the open field for the first time all season. The Ravens did not give him the ball near the goal line, though, and Bernard Pierce was not able to punch the ball in from in tight. It will be tough sledding for Rice and the Ravens next week against the Detroit Lions, who ranked first in the NFL in rushing defense before the Philadelphia Eagles ran all over them on Sunday. Rice still isn't the Rice of old, but he is starting to resemble him. The Ravens will need him to have another productive game if they are to keep pace with the high-scoring Lions in their house.
2. For the second straight week, the Baltimore defense was held without a sack. The elements were no doubt a factor -- what will these guys have to play in next, a Sharknado? -- as was the absence of outside linebacker Elvis Dumervil, who was sidelined with an ankle injury. But still, this is not the time of the season for Terrell Suggs and the pass rush to perform a disappearing act. After generating Defensive Player of the Year hype with nine sacks in his first eight games, Suggs has none in his past five. Haloti Ngata and Chris Canty aren't pressing quarterbacks up the middle. And Ravens blitzes aren't hitting home. That must change with Matthew Stafford, Tom Brady and Andy Dalton looming the next three weeks.
3. After being a non-factor in recent weeks as Jones has emerged in the offense, Brown had his best game of his young career against the Vikings, setting new single-game highs with seven catches and 92 yards. His game-winning touchdown, on which he showed a great deal of composure and body control, was his sixth of the season, putting him one shy of Torrey Smith's rookie record. It was his first touchdown since Week 9 and he had just three total catches in his past three games, but it is worth noting that the Ravens kept giving him opportunities to make plays as he has still been playing more snaps than Jones. I'm not sure what the future holds for Brown. It's too soon to say that he can be a legitimate No. 2 wide-out for the Ravens going forward. But at the very least, he can be a red-zone threat, which is a valuable commodity.