With the Ravens trailing and his good friend hurting and the clock tick-tick-ticking away on a dreary afternoon in Baltimore, Tyler Huntley gathered his teammates, looked at the Denver Broncos’ defense and smiled.
“He loves it out there,” right guard Kevin Zeitler said of the team’s perpetually grinning backup quarterback. “He has fun.”
At points late in Sunday’s game, Huntley might’ve been the only one inside M&T Bank Stadium at peace. Starter Lamar Jackson, a fellow South Florida native, had been knocked out with a knee injury. The Ravens had trailed or been tied with a reeling Denver team (3-9) all afternoon. The tense go-ahead drive that Huntley delighted in leading featured two fourth-down conversions and a last-minute march to the goal line.
Maybe Huntley knew what lay ahead: a go-ahead touchdown run, a missed game-winning field goal attempt by Denver as time expired, a 10-9 win that averted a December disaster. Cheers replaced boos. Joy kicked out misery. And the uncertainty of one of the season’s most significant injuries was lessened, if only somewhat, by coach John Harbaugh’s postgame announcement that Jackson’s knee injury was not season-ending.
The Ravens (8-4) have had better days this season. But never have they avoided worse fates.
“We’ll take it,” said tight end Mark Andrews, who had four catches for 53 yards. “We’ll take that win. No matter how it comes, we’re going to take that all day. We know our time’s coming; we know things are going to start clicking. Like I said, we have a team that wants to be great. We come to work every day. There are ups, there are downs, but we stay level.”
Just where the Ravens’ baseline ends up, though, depends on their star quarterback’s health. Harbaugh said Jackson would undergo more tests Monday on his knee, which was hurt late in the first quarter. Outside linebacker Jonathon Cooper had sacked Jackson from behind on the play, an innocuous-looking takedown that sent Jackson to the team’s medical tent and then to the locker room with members of the Ravens’ medical staff.
He was ruled out early in the second half, finishing the game 3-for-4 for 11 yards, with two sacks taken, and one run for 9 yards. Jackson tweeted in celebration as the Ravens finished off the win but was not seen in the locker room afterward. His timetable for a return is uncertain.
“It’s going to be a number [of] days to weeks,” Harbaugh said. “We’ll see if he can go back this week. If not, it’ll be some time after that shortly.”
With Jackson sidelined, the Ravens had to find a new way to stay atop the AFC North and press onward for a playoff berth. A week ago, they’d squandered a significant fourth-quarter lead for the fourth time this season, losing to the Jacksonville Jaguars after a last-minute 2-point conversion.
On Sunday, they didn’t lead until Huntley plunged into the end zone from 2 yards out with 28 seconds remaining, running over right guard on a day when Marshal Yanda was inducted into the Ravens’ Ring of Honor.
“Shoot, I just knew I had to get in,” said Huntley, who finished 27-for-32 for 187 yards and added 10 carries for a team-high 41 yards. “I was like, ‘We’ve got to score points.’ That’s all I was thinking about at that moment.”
Huntley’s final charge was about the fifth-most dramatic play of a season-best 91-yard touchdown drive. After the Ravens’ defense forced the Broncos’ seventh and final punt of the game, the offense had taken over for the final time at its 9-yard line. Two of the Ravens’ previous three drives had ended with inexplicable interceptions — one on a Huntley pass thrown way behind an unsuspecting Andrews, the other on a double-reverse pass from wide receiver James Proche II that also ended in the hands of Denver safety Justin Simmons.
Late in the fourth quarter, there was no more margin for error. The Ravens, staring down a long field with just over five minutes remaining, needed four plays for their first first down. They needed Andrews to draw a pass-interference penalty on star cornerback Patrick Surtain II on third-and-5, taking them past Denver’s 40 for only the third time all game. They needed Huntley to convert a fourth-and-2 at Denver’s 18, using a read option to find rare open space against Denver’s stout run defense (103 yards allowed on 28 carries).
After Huntley found running back Kenyan Drake open down the sideline for a 13-yard catch-and-run down to the Broncos’ 2, the Ravens took a timeout with 31 seconds remaining. When Huntley scored on first-and-goal, M&T Bank Stadium erupted in relief — or at least the Ravens fans who hadn’t been scared off by the game’s first two hours did. Kicker Justin Tucker’s extra point handed the Ravens a 10-9 lead.
There was still time for heartbreak. Wilson found wide receiver Jerry Jeudy for a 16-yard completion. Then he scrambled for 17 more yards. At the Ravens’ 49, with nine seconds remaining, he ran for another 4 yards. With two seconds left, Denver called on kicker Brandon McManus, who’d nailed a 52- and 50-yarder earlier Sunday. His career long was 61 yards; this one, from 63 yards, fell a few yards short of the crossbar.
“Honestly, I thought it was going in,” cornerback Marlon Humphrey said. “But it didn’t, so that’s good. That’s good.”
Said Harbaugh: “Character gets rewarded in the end. It doesn’t always get rewarded when we want it to on our clock, but it gets rewarded eventually. Today, we were blessed enough to have it be rewarded before this game ended. We’re very appreciative of that and grateful for it.”
The Ravens, for the most part, avoided insult and injury Sunday. Denver had entered the game as an 8 1/2-point underdog, having lost seven of its past eight games. According to Football Outsiders’ efficiency metrics, the Broncos had been the NFL’s worst team since trading away star outside linebacker Bradley Chubb on Nov. 1.
But they struck first, taking their opening drive for a field goal, and turned the game into a war of attrition. Jackson lasted only a quarter. Left tackle Patrick Mekari left early with a minor toe injury, and inside linebacker Kristian Welch with a concussion. Inside linebacker Patrick Queen was carted off late with what Harbaugh said was a thigh bruise. Rookie safety Kyle Hamilton and tight end Isaiah Likely had to tend to minor injuries before returning for crucial late snaps.
Against a Denver offense that finished Sunday with just 272 yards (led by quarterback Russell Wilson’s 189 through the air), against a Denver defense that had allowed 23 points a week earlier to the Carolina Panthers in a sound defeat, the Ravens needed help wherever it was available.
“In December football, you have to find a way to win the game, and I’m proud of our team,” Harbaugh said. “I’m proud of every single guy; I’m proud of every single guy in that room there, player, coach, manager, trainer — everybody. That was the kind of win that you have to get in December, and I feel great about it.”
Goodwill was scarce for much of Sunday, as the boos ringing around the stadium could attest to. The Ravens converted three of 13 third-down opportunities, allowed four sacks, punted six times and finished with 285 yards on offense (4.1 per play). Their designed running game, even with Jackson, was an uphill battle. Their passing game with Huntley rarely ventured deep.
Now comes a road trip to Pittsburgh for a game against the rival Steelers, whose Week 13 upset last season kick-started the Ravens’ late-season spiral, the first of six straight losses. The Ravens didn’t have Jackson for much of that slide. They hope he’ll be back before long this season.
On Sunday, that left them with just enough to survive — and plenty to smile about.
“It’s an emotional roller coaster, but the heartbeat of this team is kind of sticking together,” Drake said. “Can’t really let the situation get too big for you. You have to make the plays, chip away and kind of let the game come to you, if you may. Don’t try to do too much, and the plays kind of happen. At the end of the day, it’s all about a win. It doesn’t matter if it’s 1-0 or 100-0. That’s the National Football League.”
Ravens at Steelers
Sunday, 1 p.m.
TV: Ch. 13
Radio: 97.9 FM, 101.5 FM, 1090 AM
Line: Ravens by 4 1/2