As Lamar Jackson snaked his way through the middle of a jubilant scrum inside M&T Bank Stadium late Sunday night, one final getaway on the night of his greatest comeback win yet, Ravens coach John Harbaugh found his quarterback and looked like he might laugh and cry and smile, all at once, a cocktail of emotions bottled up and ready to pop.
It had been a long night in Baltimore, a frustrating night, an ecstatic night. Jackson and Harbaugh could not be blamed if they needed someone to keep their legs from wobbling like Jell-O or their hearts from beating like a drum. They embraced, coach and quarterback together, long enough for the scale of their accomplishment to sink in.
On the scoreboard above, it read: Ravens 36, Chiefs 35. For three frustrating years, the Ravens had been at the mercy of Kansas City and its own superstar quarterback, Patrick Mahomes. Jackson himself had acknowledged that the Chiefs were his “kryptonite.” Not only was he 0-3 against Kansas City, the AFC’s dominant franchise, but he’d also been made to look more like Clark Kent than Superman.
Over and over Sunday, in the biggest moments of one of the NFL’s best rivalries, Jackson changed the narrative. Through the air, he overcame two early interceptions to finish 18-for-26 for 239 yards and a touchdown. On the ground, he had 16 carries for a game-high 107 yards, including 2 late on a potential make-or-break fourth-and-1 call, and two rushing touchdowns. The Ravens led for just 3:14 all game, but that was all they needed in a “Sunday Night Football” game for the ages.
“It feels good,” said Jackson, whose 11th 100-yard rushing game tied Michael Vick for the most by a quarterback in NFL history, including the playoffs. “It feels good to get that monkey off of our back. It just feels good. We’ve got to move on to Detroit [in Week 3] now. We didn’t win the Super Bowl yet; it’s just one game. We’ve got to just keep staying focused.”
It was fitting that Jackson gave the Ravens their first lead all game. At the end of a 14-play, 63-yard drive that took more than eight minutes off the fourth-quarter clock, Jackson took a zone-read keeper off right tackle. No one could account for the game’s most dangerous runner. Rather than walk in the 1 yard he needed, Jackson somersaulted. Then he chucked the ball high into the sky, rising with the deafening decibel level inside a stadium packing 70,000-plus for the first time in well over a year.
It was a slight advantage, 36-35, but the Ravens needed more. A failed 2-point-conversion attempt made the game winnable with a field goal. The Chiefs needed just two plays to get inside the Ravens’ 40. After the third, Kansas City was at the 32, already within field-goal range for kicker Harrison Butker. History was preparing to repeat itself: another inevitable Mahomes drive, another painful Ravens loss, another week of Jackson-won’t-get-there fodder for the national sports discourse.
Then Mahomes handed the ball off to running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire, and Chiefs left guard Joe Thuney couldn’t beat Ravens outside linebacker Odafe Oweh to his gap in time. Thuney got enough of the rookie to hold him somewhat, Oweh said, but not enough to keep him from aiming his right hand at the exposed ball. Oweh reached for it. He had faith that somehow he’d make contact.
“As soon as I slapped it, I saw the ball on the ground,” said Oweh, whose delayed blitz on Mahomes late in the third quarter also helped force an interception by cornerback Tavon Young. “I was like, ‘Oh, yeah, it’s time. Get that ball. Try to win the game.’ "
That responsibility fell once more to Jackson and his offense. On Monday night, in a dispiriting season-opening, overtime loss to the Las Vegas Raiders, the Ravens had played it safe late in the fourth quarter. Rather than go for it on fourth-and-2 and kill more clock, Harbaugh had asked kicker Justin Tucker to put the Ravens ahead with a 47-yard field goal, which he did. Then he asked their defense to put the game away in the final minute, which they didn’t.
Six days later, Jackson wanted to end the game with the ball in his hands. So with 65 seconds remaining, when the Ravens found themselves staring down a fourth-and-1, and Harbaugh asked Jackson whether he wanted to go for it, there was only one response coming.
“I think I wanted to be sure myself, you know?” Harbaugh said. “I knew he was going to say yes, but we were going for it at that point.”
After a Kansas City timeout, Jackson lined up in the shotgun, took a quick snap and headed for the heart of the Chiefs’ defense. He came out on the other end with a first down. The game was theirs.
“Once I saw the play call, that we were putting the ball in Lamar’s hands, I had 100% confidence that we were going to convert,” said wide receiver Marquise “Hollywood” Brown, who had six catches for a game-high 113 yards and a third-quarter touchdown from an improvised jump pass.
The Ravens will wake up Monday happy to have avoided an 0-2 start, normally a death knell for a team’s playoff hopes. They will feel less happy when they replay the game tape and watch Mahomes and the Chiefs dice up a highly regarded, heavily injured defense for 8.3 yards per play. Against a rarely seen play-it-safe approach from coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale, Mahomes finished 24-for-31 for 343 yards and three touchdowns and the interception.
When training camp opened, the Ravens had the personnel — on paper, anyway — to keep Kansas City’s offense from pyrotechnics. Then Jimmy Smith, one of the NFL’s higher-rated cornerbacks when healthy last season, sprained his ankle and had a slow recovery. Then cornerback Marcus Peters, one of the NFL’s best ball hawks, tore his ACL in early September. Then cornerback Chris Westry suffered a meniscus injury in the season-opening loss at Allegiant Stadium.
Just when the Ravens’ injury list couldn’t get any more daunting, safety DeShon Elliott came up woozy after a second-quarter collision. He was examined for a concussion and did not return. A third-quarter neck strain for defensive tackle Brandon Williams robbed the defense of another starter.
The Ravens needed help tackling as much as they do a clean bill of health, maybe even more. The defense finished second to last in 2020 with 134 missed tackles, according to Pro Football Reference, behind only the Raiders (143). Little changed Sunday. On wide receiver Byron Pringle’s 40-yard catch-and-run touchdown in the third quarter, he broke an open-field tackle from rookie defensive back Brandon Stephens, Elliott’s replacement, turned the corner against cornerback Anthony Averett and beat everyone to the pylon.
The worst was yet to come for the Ravens. On tight end Travis Kelce’s 46-yard catch-and-run score, which extended the Chiefs’ lead to 35-24, Young got stiff-armed, Stephens couldn’t wrap up Kelce (seven catches for 109 yards), Averett whiffed on a dive, cornerback Marlon Humphrey offered only a glancing blow, and defensive tackle Justin Ellis’ last-ditch wrap-up dragged Kelce into the end zone.
But that would be the Kansas City’s last score. Despite the Ravens’ short-handed secondary, despite Mahomes’ nose for heartbreak, Kansas City ended the game with Young’s interception, a punt and Oweh’s fumble on its final three drives.
“When guys go down, you can’t really have that much fall-off,” Humphrey said. “And I think [general manager Eric] DeCosta and all the scouts have done such a great job of getting the right guys in places, even if they’re on the [practice] squad or wherever, having those guys available and just ready to go. It’s huge. No Marcus [Peters], no this guy, no that guy. It seems like we haven’t really lost a beat. So we look to continue to do that and just continue to stay healthy and do what we can to win games.”
The pregame ceremonies Sunday were authentically Baltimore, with a musical nod to the late Michael K. Williams, who starred as Omar Little on “The Wire,” and a squirrel dance from Ravens legend Ray Lewis. Then the game started with the residual craziness of the Ravens’ season opener, an only-in-Vegas kind of night that ended with a Raiders comeback and overtime win.
Jackson’s first three snaps presaged the wild three-plus hours to come: a short run after breaking the huddle with less than 10 seconds remaining, a missed downfield shot to a streaking Brown and a pick-six by safety Tyrann Mathieu after Watkins slipped on a comeback route. The Chiefs led without Mahomes having touched the ball.
The Ravens answered by battering Kansas City the only way they know how: on the ground. Jackson passed just once on a six-play, 75-yard touchdown drive, but still had to watch the ball hang in the air before it crossed the plane. After running back Ty’Son Williams (13 carries for 77 yards) rumbled to Kansas City’s 1 on a 9-yard carry, cornerback Mike Hughes jarred it loose before the goal line. The ball popped out to wide receiver Devin Duvernay, who caught it and fell forward for his first career offensive touchdown.
The offenses went back and forth throughout the first half, with neither defense all that prepared to stop the Chiefs and Ravens’ unique attacks. Kansas City cruised to 179 first-half passing yards, including a 33-yard touchdown throw from Mahomes to wide receiver Demarcus Robinson. The Ravens rolled to 165 rushing yards before halftime, and would finish with 41 carries for 251 yards overall.
At halftime, with the Ravens trailing 21-17, Brown said the message was simple: Keep putting the pressure on Kansas City. By the time Jackson and Harbaugh embraced, they could celebrate a night of high scores, high drama — and no apparent kryptonite.
“I told them last night, in the meeting, that it would be an honor for all of us coaches to take the field with these guys, and it was,” Harbaugh said. “Even if the game had gone the other way, I told them it was an honor to be on the field with them, no matter what the outcome is. You don’t mourn outcomes; you mourn people. You work on process, but you can celebrate victories, and that’s what we’re doing tonight.”
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