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How ‘the GOAT’ Justin Tucker made history and lifted the Ravens to an unforgettable victory

Ravens kicker Justin Tucker talks about his NFL-record 66-yard field goal to beat the Detroit Lions, 19-17.

DETROIT — Before the longest field goal in NFL history ended one of the most dramatic wins in Ravens history, Justin Tucker crossed himself. Precision has long been the signature of the kicker’s legendary career in Baltimore — always three steps back, always two steps to his left, always landing on his plant foot — but the 66 yards separating holder Sam Koch from the uprights inside Ford Field required faith in a new path forward, a more glorious outcome.

Three-plus hours before the Ravens stormed out of Detroit with an unforgettable 19-17 win over the Lions, Tucker had tried from 65 yards — twice. Amid the relative serenity of pregame warmups, he’d missed — twice, short both times. Now here he was, behind even the tail of the Lions’ midfield logo, lining up for a kick 5 yards longer than any he’d ever made in a game, 2 yards longer than anyone in NFL history had ever made. Not only would Tucker have to ignore the full-throated hollers of more than 50,000 fans, but he’d also have to abandon technique for blunt force. The NFL’s most exacting kicker was just going to put his boot through the ball and watch it soar.

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After finding his usual footing around the Ravens’ 41-yard line, Tucker backed up even farther, so that his heel was almost on the 40-yard line. Koch signaled for the ball. Long snapper Nick Moore put it on the money. Tucker hopped as if he were approaching a kickoff, then swung his right foot forward, landing on it with such force that he felt as if he might tip over. He’d practiced for situations like this, but only for less than a year.

“You sacrifice some of that [form] to just gain a little power,” Tucker said after his 17th career game-winning kick, “and use the adrenaline and the feeling of the moment just to get the ball to go.”

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It was going, all right, but how far? At first, cornerback Marlon Humphrey acknowledged, he didn’t think the kick, straight as an arrow, had enough juice to get to the goal posts. As the ball soared past the Lions’ 30-yard line, Harbaugh thought to himself, “That’s got a chance.” Then the kick started to lose steam, hurtling toward the painted turf of the Lions’ end zone, and “it was like slo-mo coming down,” tight end Mark Andrews said.

In a game rife with mistakes, Tucker had only so much margin for error. Just 10 feet separate the playing surface from the top of the crossbar, and the diameter of the posts is no more than about 6 inches. Tucker’s kick turned a game of inches into a game of centimeters. As Ravens teammates raised their arms prematurely in certain victory and Tucker sprinted off to the side for a better look, the ball hit the horizontal pole almost flush, bouncing maybe 20 yards in the air before spinning over it, a big, dramatic kick getting a big, dramatic finish.

“It bounced the right way,” Harbaugh said of Tucker’s kick, which eclipsed the Denver Broncos’ Matt Prater’s 64-yard boot in 2013. “It got a little push — a supernatural push right there.”

Maybe it’s something in the water of the Great Lakes. Tucker, who missed a 49-yarder in the first quarter to end his perfect record on indoor field-goal attempts, had made a 60-plus-yard field goal just once before Sunday. That came in Detroit, too, a 61-yarder to beat the Lions in 2013 and announce himself as not just some one-year wonder.

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“It’s like déjà vu all over again,” Tucker said. “Man, I love Detroit. I’m thinking about getting a place here.”

It had been hard to find much humor on the Ravens’ sideline minutes earlier. After Lions kicker Ryan Santoso’s 35-yard field goal gave Detroit its 17th point of the second half — needing just three possessions to get there — quarterback Lamar Jackson took over at his 25-yard line with just 64 seconds remaining and no timeouts. The Ravens were trailing for the first time all game. Jackson (16-for-31 for 287 yards and a touchdown) had thrown an interception on his last attempt. The offense’s pass protection was starting to break down.

On Jackson’s first drop-back, he was sacked. On his second, he missed over the middle to wide receiver Devin Duvernay. On his third, he was sacked again, and the clock ticked ominously under 30 seconds. Then, on fourth-and-19, the Lions took a timeout. “I was happy for that timeout,” Jackson said, “because we needed a little breather.”

The Ravens huddled. Offensive coordinator Greg Roman told Harbaugh he had a better play call in mind. Wide receiver Sammy Watkins, lined up to Jackson’s right, ran a deep crossing pattern as the Lions rushed just three defenders. Watkins said later that his mind had told him to run underneath a lurking defensive back, and that his heart told him to go over the top. He listened to his heart. Watkins accelerated, caught a perfectly lofted pass at the Ravens’ 47 and tumbled down at Detroit’s 48. Two plays later, Tucker walked back and wound up.

“I think ‘G-Ro’ [offensive coordinator Greg Roman] dialed up probably one of the best plays in his life, honestly,” said Watkins, who finished with four catches for 68 yards. “So to get a [fourth-and-19] and then, on the next play, kick it to win it, that’s what you call God on our side.”

The Ravens will head into Denver next week, home of the 4-0 Broncos, with more than a few prayers answered. Tight end Mark Andrews, who had five catches for a game-high 109 yards, offered maybe the understatement of the season when he did the math on the Ravens’ strife levels this season: “A lot of adversity.”

It’d been one thing to lose an overtime thriller in Week 1 to the upstart Las Vegas Raiders, then knock off the Super Bowl favorite Kansas City Chiefs in another frantic finish six days later. It’s been another to watch teammate after teammate drop off the active roster. The Ravens entered Week 3 as touchdown favorites despite a slew of season-ending injuries, despite having four defensive contributors ruled out the day before their flight to Detroit because of coronavirus concerns.

For the first half Sunday, it didn’t seem to matter much that the Ravens had placed defensive tackles Brandon Williams and Justin Madubuike and outside linebackers Jaylon Ferguson and Justin Houston on the reserve/COVID-19 list. The Lions still looked like the Lions.

While the Ravens flubbed opportunity after opportunity against a beat-up Detroit defense, a few downfield shots slipping through wide receiver Marquise “Hollywood” Brown’s hands, the Lions went out and one-upped them. They averaged just 3.5 yards per play on offense. They got called for a false start on two fourth-and-1s on which they appeared ready to go for it. They had penalties on two punts, including a running-out-of-bounds infraction that wiped out a fumble recovery at the Ravens’ 23-yard line. And they blew a third-and-18 in the red zone, letting Duvernay get wide open in the back of the end zone for a 19-yard score in the second quarter.

The Lions team that returned for the second half looked renewed, as if legendary wide receiver Calvin Johnson, on hand for a Hall of Fame ceremony, had sprinkled his greatness on the offense. Slowly but surely, Jared Goff (22-for-30 for 217 yards) and running back D’Andre Swift (seven catches for 60 yards) got Detroit’s motor running. After opening the game with six straight punts, the Lions marched to the end zone twice with back-to-back drives worth a combined 23 plays, 150 yards and 14 minutes, 20 seconds.

The Ravens’ inconsistent execution left Detroit enough space to grab a toehold. The offense converted just one of its 10 third-down opportunities, and the defense struggled to tackle in space, especially in the second half.

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“We just have to get better,” Harbaugh said. “We talked about it in the locker room. It’s our responsibility. When you’re granted that kind of favor, then you’re responsible to respond, and our responsibility is to improve.”

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It ultimately didn’t matter Sunday, because the Ravens have, in Andrews’ words, “the GOAT” — the greatest [kicker] of all time. Harbaugh recalled that in the madness of the Ravens’ celebration, someone came up to him on the sideline and told him they’d never seen anything like what had just happened.

“And it came to me right away,” Harbaugh said. He raised his eyebrows. “Because nobody’s ever done anything like that before.”

Week 4

RAVENS@BRONCOS

Sunday, 4:25 p.m.

TV: Chs. 13, 9

Radio: 97.9 FM, 1090 AM

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