The Ravens were going for it. Never mind that they’d failed on their last fourth-down attempt, that they’d be running behind an undrafted center, that not even Gus Edwards had managed to move the sticks on third-and-short against the San Francisco 49ers’ fearsome front. On fourth-and-inches from the Ravens’ 44-yard line, with less than five minutes left in a tie game, victory sitting on a knife’s edge, the decision was made.
“We knew we were going to go for it,” coach John Harbaugh said afterward.
Over 12 weeks, the Ravens’ marriage of analytically informed decision-making and a smashmouth approach had produced a Most Valuable Player-caliber season for quarterback Lamar Jackson and a runaway lead in the AFC North. When math and mentality converged again on the most important play of maybe the NFL season’s most hyped game Sunday, they kept it simple.
After a 20-17 win at M&T Bank Stadium that extended their winning streak to a franchise-record eight games, the Ravens said that they had liked their odds. A quarterback sneak for the elusive Jackson? With All-Pro guard Marshal Yanda helping to clear space next to rookie center Patrick Mekari? They have taken bigger risks this season. Given the choice between playing it safe and playing to win, these Ravens will go for the jugular.
Because they have Jackson. Because they have Harbaugh. And because they know that, even if that’s not enough, they can count on kicker Justin Tucker to hit a game-winning 49-yard field goal through the rain as time expires.
“That was the goal,” Yanda said. “Protect the football. Give us a chance to give Tuck a chance to win us the game.”
The Ravens could not rest until after the 114th and final play of a potential Super Bowl preview, but their tenacity was rewarded handsomely. Never before has a Ravens team started a season 10-2. They’ll enter their fourth straight high-profile game, Sunday’s showdown against the host Buffalo Bills, with a three-game lead in the AFC North. According to FiveThirtyEight, they have the NFL’s best chances of winning the Super Bowl.
The Ravens’ first single-digit win since Week 6 was unconventional by their standards, defined as much by what Jackson did with his right arm as by what defensive end Chris Wormley did with his left. After Jackson (14-for-23 for a season-low 105 yards and a touchdown) misfired on third-and-5 and then fourth-and-5 midway through the fourth quarter, the 49ers (10-2) took over needing about 30 yards to get into field-goal range for a would-be tiebreaker.
San Francisco turned to a ground game that had been razor sharp in unpleasant conditions, even more productive than the Ravens’ league-leading unit. But after the 49ers crossed into Ravens territory, surprise star running back Raheem Mostert (19 carries for 146 yards, including a 40-yard score) was held to three straight 3-yard carries.
On fourth-and-1, quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo dropped back — no play-action, no deception. He was looking for tight end George Kittle. His throw over the middle never got there. (If it had, safety Earl Thomas III was in good position anyway.) Wormley had pushed his way close enough to Garoppolo that when he stuck his left hand up, the ball clanged off it like it was a backboard.
“We knew we had to make a stop, no matter how many yards they got,” Wormley said. “Toward the end, when they were driving, they got us a couple times. We knew we had to make that stop for the offense to get the ball back to put us in position to score. They decided to go for it … and we shut them down.”
Jackson said the Ravens have entered every game this season expecting a dogfight. After five wins in a row in which they outscored opponents by a combined 202-62, they finally got another one.
The 49ers started the game with the first opening-drive touchdown the Ravens have allowed this season. That also handed the Ravens their first deficit since Week 7. Defensively, San Francisco ended Jackson’s streak of 12 straight scoring drives. The 49ers, with their stable of athletic defensive ends and talented defensive backs, were well suited to limit Jackson (16 carries for 101 yards and a touchdown) and running backs Mark Ingram II (59 yards) and Edwards (15 yards).
But the Ravens did not need Jackson to make his most convincing NFL MVP case to win a game that wide receiver Willie Snead IV said the team had “circled.” This is a well-rounded squad, with a defense that made enough timely stops Sunday and a special teams unit that blocked a field-goal attempt, pinned the 49ers at their 1 with a Sam Koch punt and didn’t err once on a slick surface.
The Ravens have emerged as the NFL’s best team because they can win when their offense is at its worst. In Week 5, they had 5.3 yards per play, Jackson threw three interceptions, and they still beat the Pittsburgh Steelers on the road in overtime. On Sunday, they had 4.6 yards per play — a new season low — Jackson threw what he called “horrible” passes and had a red-zone drive ended by a fumble, and they still won.
“To win a game like that is really valuable,” Harbaugh said. “We expect every game to be just like that. And sometimes they’re not, but the ones that count, and the ones that are, you have to be ready for. Our guys approached the week of work just that way, and they were ready for it.”
Jackson creates certain advantages for offensive coordinator Greg Roman, but so does the Ravens’ aggressive approach. After another two fourth-down conversions Sunday, they have 15 this season, the most in the NFL and as many as the rest of the AFC North have combined.
Their last one was not as glamorous as their fourth-and-2 score against the Seattle Seahawks or as cutthroat as their fourth-quarter conversion against the Los Angeles Rams last Monday. But it was effective, as most have been.
After Edwards’ third-and-1 attempt was stuffed, Jackson lined up under center, not out of the pistol. “When the ball’s a little wetter, it’s a little easier to get it to him under center,” Mekari said. At the snap of the ball, San Francisco linebacker Fred Warner blitzed the gap between Mekari and Yanda. Yanda bent him back with his left shoulder. Jackson had to shoot through the first hole he saw, and that was it. He rode on right tackle Orlando Brown Jr.’s back before falling forward for a 3-yard gain.
It was a small spark, enough to ignite a good enough drive. A 12-yard completion to tight end Mark Andrews (game-high 50 yards and a touchdown) moved the Ravens into 49ers territory. A 10-yard throw to tight end Hayden Hurst got the Ravens into field-goal range. Jackson finally came off the field at the 49ers’ 31. He had done enough.
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What came next was predictable: Tucker made his 38th straight fourth-quarter field goal and 15th career game-winner. But there would’ve been no midfield celebration, no roars of approval around Baltimore, had the Ravens not trusted their offense to find a yard. Give them a hole, and they’ll take the game, too.
“We’re determined,” Jackson said. “At the end of the day, offensive line, running backs, receivers, tight ends, all of us are determined, regardless. We’re trying to win. We played a great team. It was all-go. We had to do it.”