After the last of several on-field interviews, Ravens safety Will Hill returned to a celebratory locker room and nearly got sick. The dramatic turn of events and one frantic dash down the sideline late Monday night frayed his nerves, leaving him physically tired and emotionally spent.
Defensive end Brent Urban, whose block of the Cleveland Browns' attempt at a game-winning field goal gave Hill the opportunity to scoop up the ball and return it 64 yards for a touchdown, fumbled over his words trying to describe a "surreal" feeling. A wide smile, though, never left his face.
Moments later, Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees stopped before departing the visiting locker room at FirstEnergy Stadium and asked a reporter if this was the craziest season that he's ever witnessed. Both agreed that it was and Pees, a football lifer to the core, expressed hope that he would never experience a year like this again.
The 2015 season has challenged the Ravens physically and tested them mentally, but it clearly hasn't broken their spirit. At 4-7 and without their starting quarterback, running back, top wide receiver and defensive leader, their playoff hopes remain distant, at best. But the wild, 33-27 victory over the hapless Browns provided hope and affirmation for a team that has vowed to finish strong and play inspired football until the very end.
"Kendrick Lewis, when that craziness all took place, he was all in my face just going crazy, [saying], 'We never quit. We never quit. We're never going to quit,'" Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "It reminded me of Winston Churchill. Didn't he say something along those lines? Just that kind of a game. I'm just so proud of the guys."
It was Harbaugh who, even as the losses mounted and the team's playoff hopes slipped away, said several weeks ago that the story of the 2015 Ravens hadn't been written yet. The chapter that played out in front of a national television audience on Monday night might have been the most bizarre yet.
With quarterback Matt Schaub making his first start in 23 months, the Ravens led the Browns by two touchdowns in the second quarter, fell behind by a field goal early in the third quarter, built a touchdown lead late in the fourth quarter and then couldn't stop Cleveland's usual third-string quarterback from tying the game with a long touchdown pass in the last two minutes.
That set the stage for a mind-boggling final 1:47. Each team had the ball twice and it was the Ravens who won the game with their kick-block team on the field. It marked just the second time in NFL history — and the first since 1983 — that a team won a game by returning a blocked field-goal attempt for a touchdown on the final play.
"It was a roller coaster, but in the end, we won," Ravens nose tackle Brandon Williams said. "That's all that matters."
No player exemplified the swing of emotions better than Hill, who blew coverage on Austin Davis' late 42-yard game-tying touchdown pass to Travis Benjamin. Hill said later that he was desperate to make amends for the play and he got that chance when Urban, playing in the first game of his NFL career, deflected Travis' Coons' 51-yard field-goal attempt and the ball bounced right to Hill. He tiptoed down the sideline and scored arguably the most bizarre game-winning touchdown in the NFL this year.
Outside of the locker room, Harbaugh hugged Hill and told the safety how proud he was of him. Hill thanked the coach for sticking with him.
"We've been fighting all year long, no matter the ups and downs, the injuries, people getting cut. It doesn't matter. We believe in each other," Hill said. "My favorite shirt that Harbs brought out was 'Faith and guts.' That's all we have right now — faith and guts, and to continue and go out and fight and try and be the best Ravens team we can be."
The Ravens set an NFL record when their first nine games of the season were decided by eight points or fewer. They've since tacked on three more to that record, and it probably would be foolish to expect anything different when the Ravens face the struggling Miami Dolphins (4-7) Sunday at Sun Life Stadium.
The Ravens' seven losses have been decided by a total of 32 points. Their four wins have been by a total of 15. In four consecutive games, the winning points have been scored with no time on the clock.
"It's been kind of the story all year," Ravens rush linebacker Elvis Dumervil said. "I think we kind of are maturing as a team and trying to really learn how to win."
Even in the euphoria of their first back-to-back victories this season, the Ravens acknowledged their myriad shortcomings. Schaub threw two interceptions, one of which was returned for a touchdown. The other set up Cleveland for the late game-winning try by Coons. The offense also went just 2-for-11 on third down, a season-long issue.
The defense played well at times, but was picked apart by quarterback Josh McCown in the second quarter and then couldn't finish the deal in the fourth after McCown left with a broken collarbone.
"We're definitely making it hard on ourselves, that's for sure," said Schaub who completed 20 of 34 passes for 232 yards, two touchdown passes and two interceptions. "It just shows you the heart and the character of the guys in the locker room. It's special to get in the huddle with those guys and be around them, week-in and week-out. Win or lose, we just look to the next game. We don't flinch. It's good to reap the benefits of that."
There have been times when the Ravens seemed on the verge of a team-wide meltdown. The first three quarters against the St. Louis Rams, they looked indifferent at times and undisciplined throughout. They then scored the game's final 13 points to win, only to find out later that starting quarterback Joe Flacco led the game-winning drive with two torn ligaments in his left knee.
Against the Browns, they seemed to be in firm control of the game one minute and destined to lose it the next. But there they were late Monday night, exhausted yet exhilarated by another dramatic finish. One more chapter was done, and several more were still to be written.
"All I know is we have five games left, five more weeks of football and then we'll see what happens," defensive end Chris Canty said. "We're not going to look down the road, we're just going to take it one game at a time. That's always been our goal. That will never change."