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Baltimore Ravens

Doomed by 98-yard fumble return for TD, Ravens suffer agonizing 24-17 playoff loss to Bengals: ‘It’s tough’

CINCINNATI — The Ravens were knocking on the door of the improbable.

Quarterback Tyler Huntley was in the midst of his best performance of the year. The Ravens had scored two touchdowns in one game for the first time since star Lamar Jackson’s knee injury on Dec. 4. Baltimore — which was without its best player and playing on the road against the AFC’s hottest team — was about to take a fourth-quarter lead in enemy territory.

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But as Huntley, on a third-and-goal from the 2-yard line, sought to leap the pile and reach the football past the plane of the end zone for a touchdown, the ball was knocked loose. As it slipped away from him, so too did the Ravens’ chances at a playoff upset against a division rival.

Cincinnati defensive end Sam Hubbard caught the ball out of the air and scooted 98 yards for a touchdown, the longest fumble return touchdown in NFL playoff history. Tight end Mark Andrews stalked Hubbard down the field before finally getting blocked and collapsing at the 20-yard line. He kneeled there for several lingering seconds as Bengals fans rejoiced and Ravens fans shook their heads in bewilderment.

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“It’s basically a 14-point swing,” said Andrews, who had five catches for 73 yards. “It’s tough.”

Ravens defensive tackle Justin Madubuike walks off the field after a 24-17 loss to the Bengals in an AFC wild-card playoff game in Cincinnati on Sunday night.

Ravens coach John Harbaugh later said the play wasn’t executed well and that Huntley was supposed to go low on the play, rather than over the top. Huntley initially thought he’d cleared the goal line. And Cincinnati quarterback Joe Burrow said he doesn’t plan on trying such a sneak himself in the future.

During the play, which lasted about 12 seconds, Baltimore’s chances of winning fell from 54% to 13%, per NFL’s Next Gen Stats. The Ravens had three more possessions but couldn’t score, losing 24-17 to end their season after a last-second Hail Mary bounced around the end zone and off the hands of wide receiver James Proche II.

“I was hoping somebody came down with it,” Huntley said, “but it just didn’t happen.”

That fumble — which was also the longest go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter in NFL postseason history — erased what had been a strong performance by the Ravens. After a first-quarter interception, the Ravens’ offense settled into an impressive game, its best since Jackson, the team’s star for years, injured a ligament in his left knee six weeks before.

Huntley’s fumble overshadowed what had been a productive day for him. He completed 17 of 29 passes for 226 yards and two touchdowns, plus the interception.

“It kind of sucks that that’s going to be the play that everybody remembers,” cornerback Marlon Humphrey said of the fumble.

Running back J.K. Dobbins had a strong game, too, and in the locker room afterward said he wished his number had been called on the fateful goal-line carry.

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“He should never have been in that situation,” said Dobbins, who finished with four receptions for 43 yards and a score and 62 rushing yards on 13 carries. “I should be the guy. Let’s go win the game. I’m tired of it.”

“I thought we played a winning football game in many, many ways,” coach John Harbaugh said. “Ran the ball well, threw the ball well, played outstanding defense, got the turnover. The difference was the two turnovers. Obviously, that hurt us. One really big one, but both led to scores.”

In the first quarter, the Ravens defense couldn’t get off the field. They didn’t give up many chunk plays, but the Bengals marched; Cincinnati had eight first downs in the quarter while the Ravens ran just five offensive plays.

On the game’s opening drive, the Bengals converted a field goal. On the Ravens’ opening drive, they threw an interception, as Huntley misfired on his second pass of the evening. Cincinnati then scored a touchdown on a Burrow toss to wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase but missed the extra point to take a 9-0 lead early in the second quarter.

The Ravens, however, changed the game’s direction with a steady 17-play, 75-yard drive in the second quarter, capped by Dobbins stretching to get the nose of the ball over the plane for a touchdown.

Kyle Hamilton, a Ravens’ first-round pick in last year’s NFL draft, then forced a fumble with a well-timed hit on Bengals tight end Hayden Hurst — a one-time Ravens first-round pick. Hamilton popped the ball loose and then corralled it, which set up a 22-yard field goal by Ravens kicker Justin Tucker after the offense stalled on the 3-yard line. With the kick, Tucker passed Matt Stover as the Ravens’ leading scorer in the playoffs.

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The Ravens took a 10-9 lead into halftime, but, after a Baltimore punt to open the third quarter, the Bengals scored a touchdown and a 2-point conversion to take a 17-10 lead. Baltimore responded with a 41-yard touchdown from Huntley to a wide-open Demarcus Robinson, tying the game at 17.

Following a Bengals’ three-and-out, the Ravens drove 80 yards on eight plays before Huntley’s fumble. On the play, the ball got within 0.6 yards of the end zone, per NFL Next Gen Stats.

Baltimore had three more fourth-quarter possessions but couldn’t find the tying touchdown they needed, finally getting stopped on fourth down in the waning seconds.

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Huntley was somber postgame, saying he’ll be thinking about the catastrophic fumble “the whole offseason.” Other players in the locker room comforted one another or pensively hung their heads.

“It hurts because you know you played well enough to have a shot,” Ravens guard Kevin Zeitler said. “In the playoffs, it doesn’t matter what you’ve done in the past, what you’ve done all year, you’re on that field and in that three hours you have a chance to move on and we didn’t get it done.”

Ravens guard Patrick Mekari reacts after a 24-17 loss to the Bengals in an AFC wild-card playoff game in Cincinnati on Sunday night.

Many had written off the Ravens without Jackson, but their defense played well enough against Cincinnati’s well-oiled offense and their own offense seemed to play well enough, too. But they were doomed by one 98-yard mistake. With the loss, Baltimore has still won just one playoff game since 2015.

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“We were controlling the game, controlling the game, driving up and down the field. But it’s a whole different situation if that doesn’t happen,” Huntley said of the goal-line fumble.

Now, instead of looking forward to a postseason date with the Kansas City Chiefs next week, Ravens fans will enter the offseason with a burning question in mind: What is Lamar Jackson’s future in Baltimore?

Questions linger around the contract status of Jackson, a pending free agent who did not travel with the team to Cincinnati, according to NBC. He and the team could agree to a long-term deal, or the Ravens could place the franchise tag on him — locking him up for next year for roughly $45 million — trade him, or, less likely, let him test free agency.

Without him Sunday night, the Ravens nearly pulled off an improbable win. Ultimately, they came up just short.


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