Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson called it a win-or-go-home game. He left with a win and one of the craziest games in franchise history.
In a straight-out-of-Hollywood ending, Jackson returned from debilitating arm and leg cramps that sidelined him for most of the fourth quarter to deliver a go-ahead touchdown, then a game-winning drive. Kicker Justin Tucker’s 55-yard field goal with two seconds left punctuated one of the most memorable and madcap victories in Ravens history, a 47-42 thriller over the Cleveland Browns that seemed to regard the question, “Can this game get any crazier?” as a dare.
Jackson’s fourth-quarter feats were the stuff of legend, part Willis Reed, part Superman. With the Ravens nearing a do-or-die fourth-and-5 at the two-minute warning, Jackson had jogged onto the field only after seeing third-string quarterback Trace McSorley limp off with a knee injury. There was no one else available; backup Robert Griffin III was on injured reserve. Wide receiver Willie Snead IV was beginning to warm up, just in case.
Jackson knew it had to be him, pain or no pain. He rolled out, watched wide receiver Marquise “Hollywood” Brown get open downfield on a busted coverage and delivered a 44-yard touchdown strike. A 2-point conversion by running back J.K. Dobbins (team-high 13 carries for 53 yards and a touchdown) gave the Ravens a 42-35 lead. In just nine seconds, the game had changed, and perhaps the Ravens’ season, too.
And that was maybe only the second-most stupefying thing Jackson did. Because after the Browns needed just 47 seconds to even the score, marching 75 yards in four plays against a gassed, depleted Ravens defense, Jackson had to come on again. What did he have for an encore? A textbook six-play, 38-yard drive that pushed the Ravens into field-goal range. Tucker’s kick sailed through Cleveland’s whipping winds, and a safety sealed the win, an appropriately weird capstone to a one-in-a-million game.
“With all the things that went on with this game ... if you wrote a movie about this, people wouldn’t believe it,” coach John Harbaugh said. “They would say it could never happen. ‘Reality is stranger than fiction,’ or whatever that saying is. That’s kind of what it is here. It’s crazy.”
It was a transcendent evening, teeming with significant postseason implications. With the win, the Ravens (8-5) have an accommodating road to their third straight playoff appearance; FiveThirtyEight’s predictive models give them an 88% chance of earning a wild-card berth. Monday’s matchup was seen as the toughest of a soft December slate that ends with games against the Jacksonville Jaguars (1-12), New York Giants (5-8) and Cincinnati Bengals (2-10-1), all defeated handily Sunday.
The Browns (9-4), routed in Baltimore in Week 1, entered “Monday Night Football” looking like a contender but still regarded as a pretender. The Ravens were field-goal road favorites when it was Cleveland that was chasing a struggling Pittsburgh Steelers team for the AFC North crown.
This series sweep will hurt more than most in their woebegone history. After twice trailing by 14 points in the third quarter, the Browns had seemingly everything they needed with under seven minutes remaining: a 35-34 lead after a 5-yard scramble by quarterback Baker Mayfield (28-for-47 for 343 yards, two touchdowns and an interception); Jackson stuck in the locker room, taking salt and stretching to ease the pain; the Ravens down two cornerbacks; Cleveland’s offensive line winning at the line of scrimmage.
Against a Ravens team short on comeback magic, the game was the Browns’ to lose. But McSorley and the Ravens found just enough rope to give them hope. With just over two minutes left, they had a third-and-2 at Cleveland’s 41-yard line. McSorley took an option keeper, tried to cut and crumpled to the ground at the 44.
The two-minute warning arrived, and so did Jackson, running in from the locker room. “It happened so fast,” said Harbaugh, who’d received no word from the team’s athletic training staff that he’d return. Jackson huddled with quarterbacks coach James Urban, decided on a call after consulting with offensive coordinator Greg Roman and joined the huddle.
“All I’m thinking about is winning that game,” said Jackson, who finished 11-for-17 for 163 yards and a touchdown and added nine carries for a game-high 124 yards and two scores. “We had enough time on the clock, and I was like, ‘Man, it’s go time.’ It was just ‘go time’ for us, and it was our time, I feel. Our team fought hard. The offense played great today. We still have little things to clean up; we didn’t play a perfect game. But we’re where we want to be right now. We’re excelling right now.”
It was only fitting that the most important game of a roller-coaster Ravens season packed a year’s worth of drama into four quarters.
Late in the third quarter, the game seemed at first to swing on a play that was right out of a Mayfield fever dream. Or maybe a Don “Wink” Martindale fantasy. Jackson had just missed badly on two downfield shots — his forearm had started to cramp, he explained, and his legs soon started contracting, too — and when the Browns took over at their 13, they were down just eight points, momentum in their favor.
On first-and-10, cornerback Marlon Humphrey blitzed from Mayfield’s right as outside linebacker Tyus Bowser dropped into the left flat. Mayfield thought he could throw a fastball by him. Maybe he didn’t know he was testing one of the NFL’s best coverage linebackers. The former Houston men’s basketball guard reached out his right hand, brought the pick in like a rebound and returned it to Cleveland’s 1.
It was Bowser’s third interception of the season, tying All-Pro cornerback Marcus Peters for the team lead. And it led to Dobbins’ easiest touchdown of the season, a 1-yard carry he could’ve walked past the goal line. Crucially, Tucker had his extra-point attempt blocked, his first misfire this season leaving the score at 34-20.
Of course, this was not a night where momentum mattered or normalcy was possible. The next drive was a double whammy for the Ravens, maybe a triple whammy. On its way to a touchdown run and 2-point conversion, Cleveland converted two fourth downs. The second was a fourth-and-4 that ended with Mayfield finding wide receiver Rashard Higgins wide open for a 21-yard touchdown pass.
He’d left Peters in his wake, hurting with a calf injury. Cornerback Jimmy Smith had already left with a shoulder injury. With cornerback Anthony Averett inactive, the Ravens were left with just two healthy corners: Humphrey and Davontae Harris, a mid-November waiver claim. (Peters later returned, surprising both Harbaugh and the team’s training staff.)
“It definitely was nowhere near perfect, defensively,” Humphrey said. “But sometimes you’re going to have to have these games where the offense has to bail you out a little bit. We just kept fighting, and it seemed like there were several times where you just could have gotten down and been like, ‘Man, it’s over.’ But we made them earn it, and they moved the ball on the defense at times, but we just kept fighting, and the offense bailed us out. That’s how the game goes.”
When the Ravens offense returned early in the fourth quarter, Jackson didn’t. He was in the locker room. Safety Chuck Clark said he could only wonder what had happened; he didn’t know for certain what was going on. Tight end Mark Andrews (five catches for 78 yards) hadn’t noticed Jackson in any distress in the huddle. “Obviously, it was bad,” Andrews said. “I’m just thankful that we got him back at the end of the game.”
The game was about to turn again. McSorley and the Ravens went three-and-out; a third-down drop by Brown on a gimme throw made sure of that. Pretty soon, Cleveland had its first lead since the first quarter. Mayfield’s rushing touchdown was the game’s ninth on the ground overall, tied for the most in a single game in NFL history.
Until Monday’s chaotic second half, the game’s dominant narrative focused on a pair of shoes. Jackson’s first-half cleats seemed to skid on FirstEnergy Stadium’s Kentucky bluegrass, even on drop-backs. As Cleveland’s pass rush enveloped him, sacking him four times, he looked at times like a kid trying on a new pair of ice skates.
But when the Ravens played downhill, they rolled over the Browns. On their first drive, Jackson completed just one pass for 4 yards and helped draw a 29-yard pass-interference penalty. The rest of the Ravens’ 73 yards came on runs, or on drop-backs that turned into runs. Jackson matched the Browns’ opening score with a 5-yard keeper.
On the Ravens’ third drive, it was more of the same: just one pass, and 70 yards on the ground. Running back Gus Edwards’ (seven carries for 49 yards and two touchdowns) improvised route on a zone-read handoff from Jackson took him 11 yards into the end zone and gave the Ravens a 14-7 lead.
Near the end of the first half, the NFL’s reigning Most Valuable Player offered a preview of his crunch-time capabilities. Facing faced third-and-10 with about a minute left, he eluded one Browns defender, then another, then absorbed a hit from a third as he floated a pass to Andrews, running free down the right sideline, for a 39-yard catch-and-run.
One play later, Jackson was in the end zone again, his straight-line speed on a 17-yard scramble eclipsed only by his celebration: He threw the ball against the padding, caught the rebound, then kicked it to himself as if he wanted to give punting a go, too.
On a night that turned football drama into performance art, that was about the 19th-most inexplicable thing to happen. “We definitely needed to have this one,” Tucker said at a jubilant postgame news conference, the first Raven to try to make sense of just how they’d come away it.
Said outside linebacker Matthew Judon: “That’s why we practice, and that’s why we’re a team.”
And Brown: “I think we’ve shown that the last few weeks — we have no quit. We’re going to fight until the end, and that’s what we did.”
And Harbaugh: “All I can say is, at the end, I was doing a little bit of praying.”
Sunday, 1 p.m.
Radio: 97.9 FM, 1090 AM