The top score on the scoreboard at M&T Bank Stadium had changed for the last time early Sunday night, and so all eyes returned once more to the field, purple stomachs churning and fears mushrooming as darkness descended on Baltimore.
The Pittsburgh Steelers had just beaten the Cincinnati Bengals, 16-13, on a late field goal. The Ravens were up by two points with less than two minutes remaining. But the Cleveland Browns had the ball, and they were approaching field-goal range, and that was ominous. For the Ravens to make the playoffs for the first time in four years, for them to win their first AFC North title since 2012, they now needed to win. There was no other recourse but victory.
Three hundred and sixty-four days earlier, the Ravens’ season had crumbled in their hands at home, postseason hopes reduced to ash by the Cincinnati Bengals’ fourth-and-12 conversion with under a minute remaining. Now their defense faced fourth-and-10. This was pressure. So they brought their own once more. It saved their season.
The Ravens threw six pass rushers at quarterback Baker Mayfield, and behind the wave of purple and black was across-the-board man-to-man coverage, five-on-five in “Cover Zero.” As running back Duke Johnson streaked across the field on a shallow crossing route, Mayfield threw off his back foot, hurried by outside linebacker Matthew Judon, the lone rusher unblocked. C.J. Mosley had started the play running toward Mayfield, but he’d backed off by the time Mayfield’s pass sailed toward him. As he disengaged from left guard Joel Bitonio, Mosley reached both arms up. The ball glanced off his right hand, and he cupped it with both before falling to the ground, an interception in his grasp, a 26-24 win just 62 stress-free and ecstatic seconds away.
“Right place at the right time,” Mosley said of his first pick of the season. “This league is humbling. It’s been a long time since we’ve been in the playoffs. … We stayed aggressive that second half, and we stayed resilient as a team.”
With their late-season history cast aside as easily as their 4-5 start to this year, the Ravens (10-6) will move on to face another recent foe next weekend. As the AFC’s No. 4 seed, they’ll host the fifth-seeded Los Angeles Chargers (12-4) on Sunday, over two weeks since a vital 22-10 win in Carson, Calif.
The recipe for success then, as it was Sunday, as it has been throughout the Ravens’ six-win, seven-game stretch, has not changed since Lamar Jackson took over as starting quarterback. The rookie finished 14-for-24 for 179 passing yards and added 90 rushing yards and two scores. Running back Kenneth Dixon had 12 carries for a game-high 117 yards, while Gus Edwards had 76 yards on 12 attempts. The offense’s 296 rushing yards were a season high and third most in franchise history.
With the defense’s recent form, that figured to be enough. But the Ravens allowed 426 yards, and Mayfield (376 passing yards, three touchdowns and three interceptions) did what he could to burnish his small but growing legend. Browns wide receiver Antonio Callaway's 1-yard touchdown catch with 3:24 remaining capped a nine-play, 75-yard march downfield in which the Ravens’ top-ranked defense looked like anything but. There were blown coverages, poor tackling and little pressure. A double-digit halftime lead was down to two.
Suddenly, it was as if the Ravens team that had taken the field in overtime in Week 5 at FirstEnergy Stadium had been transported to Baltimore. The Ravens’ next drive ended after three plays, the last a questionable speed option in which Jackson’s pitch hit the ground before running back Ty Montgomery picked it up. The Ravens punted after the two-minute warning.
The game’s decisive drive lasted just 47 seconds, but it felt like an eternity. Two catches were reviewed. Both went the Browns’ way. Breshad Perriman tiptoed in for a 19-yard catch near the sideline. Jarvis Landry just managed to secure a 16-yard pass that moved the Browns (7-8-1) into Ravens territory. But Mayfield’s final pass ended in Mosley’s hands.
“We get in the situation where in the past, it may have affected us,” safety Eric Weddle said. “But now, it was that burning desire to get it done, not so much to shy away from the moment. This is our moment. I said it this morning. I said it before we went out. We’re built for this moment. We’ve prepared the entire year for this moment, so let’s go do it, let’s go take it. This is our time to shine. That’s what we did. It’s incredible, man.”
With favorable results, the Ravens could have entered the late-afternoon kickoff knowing that the AFC’s No. 2 seed and a first-round bye were possible. But the New England Patriots easily handled the New York Jets, 38-3. The Houston Texans’ 20-3 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars extinguished hopes for the No. 3 seed, too.
No amount of scoreboard-watching, though, would change the Ravens’ mission. They had to win to secure another game in Baltimore. And for much of the first half, they continued to that goal unabated.
They scored on their first four drives, cutting through Cleveland’s porous rush defense with ease and elan. Jackson scored from 25 yards out to give the Ravens a 10-7 lead, a run so self-assured he raised his hands in celebration 10 yards from the end zone. Then he scored on an 8-yard run early in the second quarter, capping a six-play, 77-yard drive and extending the lead to 10.
“It was fun to watch,” coach John Harbaugh said. “The offensive line did a great job. … That’s who we are.”
But the Ravens’ old ghosts and newer demons visited them throughout. Perriman (three catches for 45 yards), the Ravens’ first first-round pick in franchise history to be cut before his rookie contract expired, was booed lustily after a short gain on a reverse on the Browns’ first drive. On their second drive, he caught a 28-yard touchdown pass from Mayfield. There were fewer boos then.
With under three minutes remaining in the half, the Ravens had the ball at the Browns’ 3. A touchdown would have given them a 20-point lead. Their first goal-line play was odd: a handoff to tight end Maxx Williams, just the fifth carry of his career. Went nowhere. Their second play, a run by Jackson, ended inches short of the line. Their third play was successful until it wasn’t.
Jackson’s headfirst leap to the end zone, his hands fully extended with the ball, was ruled a touchdown initially. But the ball was jarred loose on the leap just short of the plane, and the Browns recovered the fumble. The play was called dead when Cleveland had the ball at the Browns’ 7. The touchdown was overturned, and the Ravens were at once unfortunate not to have scored and fortunate not to have surrendered an end-to-end defensive touchdown on another fumble by Jackson.
At halftime, the Ravens were up 13, and the Steelers were down seven. The playoffs felt inevitable. The Ravens knew it wasn’t. There were still 30 minutes to play in a season with a mind of its own. Only by reckoning with bygone failures would they live to play another week.
“To have a chance to win the division and make it happen when we needed to, this stuff doesn’t always work out this way,” right guard Marshal Yanda said. “We know that firsthand. You play hard, let the chips fall where they fall, and this time it worked out for us.”
Said outside linebacker Matthew Judon: “Would it not be us if we didn’t end it that way?”