This time, the Ravens would not succumb to the ghosts of their disappointments past.
Faced with a near-reprisal of the doomed scenario that ended their 2017 season, they held on. Linebacker C.J. Mosley intercepted Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield in the last minute of the game, prompting relieved teammates to bury him in a joyous pile as 70,925 Baltimore fans danced in the stands.
Guided by an unshakable new star in quarterback Lamar Jackson, the Ravens beat the Browns, 26-24, on Sunday to return to the playoffs for the first time since 2014.
“If you want to write a book about this season, probably no one would believe it,” said Ravens coach John Harbaugh. In 34 years on the job, he added, he’s never been associated with a group that better represented the concept of team.
With the victory, the Ravens guaranteed their fans will get to return to M&T Bank Stadium at least one more time this season, for a playoff matchup next weekend against the Los Angeles Chargers. They beat the Chargers, 22-10, on Dec. 22.
Greg Wohlfort and Patrick McMahon were among the horde of purple streaming out into the stadium concourse, hollering themselves hoarse and high-fiving anyone within reach.
“Unbelievable game,” said Wohlfort, of Middle River. “The boys pulled it off with a lot of heart. Came down to the very end, and it was a hell of a lot of fun to watch.”
McMahon wasn’t a fan of the officiating, which he said seemed to favor the Browns.
“We thought the refs were against us a little bit,” he said. “But we pulled it out.”
The division-clinching win washed away the bitter taste from last year’s season-ending, New Year’s Eve defeat to the Cincinnati Bengals.
“It feels a whole lot sweeter this year,” Wohlfort said.
The last Browns’ last drive had both teams’ fans on edge, said Chanell Glee — but she said she never lost faith her Ravens would win.
“It was crazy,” she said. “Everybody was nervous, but we held it down.”
Glee, 30, a Baltimore teacher, said the victory capped her holidays.“Perfect end of my winter break,” she said.
Jackson was the name on many fans’ lips as they looked ahead to a potential playoff run akin to the one that carried the Ravens to the Super Bowl six years ago.
“Lamar’s a playmaker,” 58-year-old Dennis Rogers of Owings Mills, who wore his lucky No. 8 jersey in honor of the team’s new star, said before the game. “I think the field is open. Their chances are just as good as anybody else.”
Jeff Lyon of Bowley’s Quarters spent his first Ravens game this season in Section 136, enjoying Jackson’s sizzling runs. “He changes everything in the game,” he said. “It’s been amazing so far, and the Steelers are losing, too. Can’t beat that.”
The Ravens faced the exact scenario they’d coveted for weeks — defeat the Cleveland Browns and they would earn their first AFC North title since 2012. Better still, they’d send the Pittsburgh Steelers home without a playoff berth for the first time since 2013.
It was a narrative that seemed far-fetched on the first weekend of November, when the Ravens lost their third game in a row, to the Steelers, and their starting quarterback, Joe Flacco, to a hip injury. Reports swirled that if the team did not reverse its fortunes in a hurry, coach John Harbaugh would be looking for a job after the season.
Enter Jackson. With Flacco sidelined, the sensationally quick rookie quarterback took control of the Ravens offense and turned it into a turf-grinding, clock-eating operation. Hand in hand with the new plan of attack, the team’s defense upped its game, holding a succession of elite quarterbacks to season-worst performance as the Ravens went on a winning streak.
Four days before Christmas, the team announced that Harbaugh would be back in 2019. Then the defense delivered its finest performance of the season as the Ravens upset the Chargers to set the stage for their climactic finale against the Browns.
Fans arrived at M&T Bank Stadium ready for a party Sunday afternoon. Their relationship with the team had frayed in recent years, as the Ravens missed the playoffs three seasons in a row and seemed stuck in a rut, playing unimaginative football. Moreover, many fans were angered when some players knelt during “The Star-Spangled Banner” before a 2017 game in London. Thousands of seats went unused at home games, and Baltimoreans who’d lived and died with the Ravens turned to bemoaning the team’s direction on Twitter feeds and talk-radio broadcasts.
They were ready to forgive all if the Ravens finished rising from the ashes against the Browns. On the flip side, fans were set up for crushing disappointment if the Ravens lost. Not only would a defeat drive them from the playoffs for the fourth straight year, it would bring a dispiriting end to the tenure of general manager Ozzie Newsome, who built both of the franchise’s Super Bowl winners. It might also represent the final Baltimore chapter for two of the greatest players in team history — Flacco and linebacker Terrell Suggs.
This was in no way just another game.
Images of frustration have dominated recent Ravens history — Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown pushing over the goal line on Christmas Day to wipe away their playoff chances in 2016, Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Tyler Boyd galloping 49 yards on New Year’s Eve to send them home unfulfilled in 2017.
This season bore an eerie resemblance to last; the Ravens entered their bye week 4-5, playoff hopes drifting toward the rocks, only to win five of six games and go into their home finale one victory away from making the playoffs.
Like the Bengals a year ago, the Browns arrived with no chance to extend their own season but with ample desire to ruin the hopes of a divisional rival. On top of playing spoiler, they aimed to secure their first winning season since 2007, a meaningful step forward for a franchise desperate to shed its moribund recent past.
The Ravens entered 29-10 all-time against the AFC North’s favorite whipping post, and Cleveland fans relished the prospect of reversing that history at the expense of Baltimore, the very city that took their team 23 years ago.
When the game ended, Rhonda and Chris Moss, permanent-seat license holders from Southern Maryland, couldn’t help but let loose their excitement at the top of their lungs.
“We drive up here for every game, and we are happy!” Rhonda Moss shouted. “Wooooo!”
“And we won the division, baby!” Chris Moss hollered.