Justin Tucker wasn't going to wait to be told to go on the field. He was going to make the decision for the Ravens coaches. As head coach John Harbaugh, special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg and kicking consultant Randy Brown deliberated on whether to attempt a 57-yard field goal late in the second quarter, Tucker sprinted off the sideline and broke into his pre-kick routine.
Wind and a clumped-up middle of the field, be damned.
"If they have to drag me off, that's fine," Tucker said. "I feel like that attitude permeates through our locker room. That is the Raven way. If you want to win, you want the ball in your hands or in my case, at your feet. If I didn't think that way, I'd be doing a disservice to everyone in this building."
With the Ravens' offense again struggling and the defense giving up a good bit of ground, Harbaugh had no easier decision Sunday than to send his prolific kicker onto the field. Tucker kicked three field goals from beyond 50 yards in the first half and made a 36-yarder in the fourth quarter as the Ravens held on for a 19-14 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals in front of an announced 70,903 at M&T Bank Stadium.
Breshad Perriman gave the Ravens an early lead with a 14-yard touchdown catch in the back of the end zone. Tucker extended it with his four field goals and then the Ravens' defense and special teams put the game away.
Needing a touchdown and extra point to tie the game, Andy Dalton drove the Bengals down to the Ravens' 16-yard line with a minute, 21 seconds to go. However, Elvis Dumervil, playing his first game since Oct. 9, strip-sacked Dalton on third down, and defensive end Lawrence Guy recovered the fumble. The Bengals never got the ball back, as punter Sam Koch took the snap with 11 seconds to go and held onto the ball in the end zone as the Ravens players held or tackled every Bengal that rushed.
Because the fouls occurred on the field of play and it was on special teams, the game was over after Koch stepped through the back of the end zone with no time on the clock. An already unusual Ravens' season got another chapter with the team willingly taking a game-ending safety.
"It was the best-executed safety ever taken because we kept him clean the whole time," Harbaugh said.
Now 6-5, the Ravens regained a hold of first place in the AFC North with the Pittsburgh Steelers, who beat the Indianapolis Colts on Thanksgiving night. They also registered their first victory over the Bengals (3-7-1) since Nov. 10, 2013, breaking a five-game losing streak to their division rival and pretty much knocking Cincinnati out of the playoff picture.
Given the Bengals' dominance over the Ravens, it probably shouldn't have been surprising that the game came down to the end. The Ravens' offense stalled after taking a 16-3 halftime lead, but the defense did just enough against a Bengals' team that didn't have two of their top playmakers — running back Giovani Bernard and wide receiver A.J. Green.
"Man, if it ain't tough, it ain't the Raven way," rush linebacker Terrell Suggs said. "I really wish we could have got off the field instead of scaring everybody and having Elvis make a fantastic play. But that's the Raven way. It ain't pretty, but we'll take it."
Suggs then grudgingly gave credit to Tucker, who has hit 34 straight field-goal attempts dating back to last season, including 27 in a row this year. On Sunday, he hit from 52, 57 and 54 yards in the first half, becoming just the ninth kicker since 1960 to make three field goals of 50-plus yards in a single game.
"We got the best kicker in the league. There's no doubt about it, but we've got to keep the young kid humble," Suggs said. "I told him when I came back, I've never seen a kicker make some contract demands, but I guess when you're the best kicker in the league, you can do that. It's great to have a kicker with ice in his veins."
The Ravens were never in danger of not having Tucker on their roster this year, but there was a time in mid-July when it appeared the two sides could ultimately be headed for a bitter parting. The Ravens put the franchise tag on the kicker, but little progress was being made in negotiations on a long-term deal. On the eve of the July 15 deadline to sign "franchised" players to long-term deals, Tucker's camp told the Ravens he wouldn't re-sign with the team if a deal wasn't reached.
It became a moot point a day later, when the two sides reached agreement on a four-year, $16.8 million deal that included $10.8 million in guaranteed money and a $6 million signing bonus. Both the guaranteed money and the signing bonus are the biggest in NFL history for a kicker.
So far, Tucker has been worth every bit of it. Tucker's teammates love to remind him that kickers in the NFL are traditionally seen and not heard (the opera singing and celebrity-impersonating Tucker does not fit that mold). But even they had to acknowledge Tucker's achievements Sunday.
Asked whether he'd be able to keep Tucker humble, Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco said, "There's no way. He's earned the right to feel the way he feels about himself. I mean, he'd feel that way anyway. There's no way to keep him down, man."
Tucker, who never minds taking a good-natured ribbing, joked afterward that "it's really great to have the support of your teammates."
All jokes aside, it's fair to wonder where the Ravens would be without Tucker this season. Five of their six victories are by seven or fewer points, and their offense continues to struggle to put a full game together. Following Sunday's game, Flacco lamented losing "offensive tempo" in the second half and getting too conservative.
"I definitely wasn't feeling great about what kind of position we put ourselves in," said Flacco who finished 25-of-36 for 234 yards, one touchdown and one interception. "I'd love to be able to finish them off, go put a touchdown or two or three on the board in the second half and just get this game over with for sure.
Luckily for the Ravens, they had Tucker. With kickers league-wide struggling to consistently make kicks and extra points — Bengals' kicker Mike Nugent missed his fourth extra point in as many games Sunday — Tucker continues to produce points on a weekly basis.
It's fair to question how far the Ravens can go when their most productive and reliable offensive weapon is their kicker. Predictably, Tucker wasn't backing down from the responsibility.
"To be on this sort of roll that we are on now is good, but it doesn't end today; it hopefully will not end at the end of December or the first part of January," Tucker said. "Hopefully, this is something that would help carry our team all the way to the playoffs and hopefully to a championship."