At the end of the Ravens’ most impressive loss of the season, tight end Mark Andrews looked up at the scoreboard inside M&T Bank Stadium early Sunday night, staring at a score made painful not only by the margin — one point, again — but also by what it represented: a near-miraculous win, a slip in the AFC North, another decisive 2-point conversion foiled.
The Ravens, depleted by injuries and the coronavirus, had lost to the NFC-leading Green Bay Packers, 31-30. Another game lived on a knife’s edge, another defeat in what’s become a three-game slide. A week after losing to the Cleveland Browns, 24-22, the Ravens (8-6) could not fix the failure that had doomed them two weeks ago, in a 20-19 loss to the Steelers.
On that night in Pittsburgh, quarterback Lamar Jackson had just missed Andrews on a go-ahead 2-point-conversion attempt. On this night, it was backup quarterback Tyler Huntley, starting for the ailing Jackson (ankle), who couldn’t connect with Andrews as he rolled out to his right, the Ravens again looking for a narrow lead in the final minute of an unpredictable game.
The Ravens’ near-comeback from a 14-point fourth-quarter deficit set up a potentially season-defining rematch next Sunday in Cincinnati. After hanging on to beat the Denver Broncos, the Bengals (8-6) now lead the AFC North by virtue of their Week 7 win in Baltimore. A Ravens loss at Paul Brown Stadium could put a division title out of reach and relegate them to the back of a mucked-up wild-card picture.
“I thought our guys played very hard and, for the most part, played very well,” coach John Harbaugh said. “We came up a little short here and there in a couple spots. Now we’re getting ready for Cincinnati. So we have an opportunity to go win the division in the next three games, and that’s what we’re going to put everything we’ve got into doing. We’re very confident in our ability to do that.”
Few could’ve predicted Sunday’s game hinging on the right arm of Huntley, leading an offense missing wide receiver Sammy Watkins (reserve/COVID-19 list), left guard Ben Powers (foot injury) and right tackle Tyre Phillips, who left in the second quarter with a knee injury. In his second career start, Huntley finished 28-for-40 for 215 yards and two touchdowns and found Andrews 10 times for 136 yards and two touchdowns. He was also the Ravens’ leading rusher, finishing with 73 yards and two touchdowns on 13 carries, including the 8-yard scramble with 42 seconds left that drew the Ravens to within 31-30.
Huntley’s assured final drive was not enough to knock off the NFC North champion Packers (11-3) and quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who finished 23-for-31 for 268 yards and three touchdowns. On the Ravens’ failed 2-point-conversion attempt, Huntley had his pass to Andrews deflected by streaking safety Darnell Savage (Maryland). He also didn’t appear to see wide receiver Marquise “Hollywood” Brown (10 catches for 43 yards) open in the middle of the field on a crossing pattern.
After a failed onside kick, the Ravens were left to lick their wounds, prepare for Cincinnati and steel themselves for another discourse on analytics.
“We were just trying to go get the win right there,” Harbaugh said. “In overtime … I think our chances of winning right there were a little bit higher than in overtime, maybe, if you calculate it out. I felt good about it. I thought we had a good play. Again, they made a really good play. I have to give that safety a lot of credit for getting out there and tipping that ball.”
“Two drives before, Coach Harbaugh was like, ‘We’re going to score two touchdowns, and we’ve got good faith that we’re going to get that 2-point conversion,’” Huntley said. “And that last touchdown, we scored, so it just didn’t go as planned.”
Just how short-handed was Harbaugh’s team? The Ravens didn’t have Jackson, and still their defense might have been their most compromised unit. Pro Bowl-level cornerbacks Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters were already lost for the season. So were starting defensive end Derek Wolfe and safety DeShon Elliott.
In the three days before kickoff, the defense’s losses mounted like it’d been dropped in its own personal “Squid Game.” Pro Bowl defensive lineman Calais Campbell was sidelined by a thigh injury he’d suffered the week before. Cornerbacks Jimmy Smith and Chris Westry and starting safety Chuck Clark were added to the reserve/COVID-19 list. Cornerback Tavon Young was ruled out with a concussion early in the third quarter.
That left the Ravens with just one cornerback with recent starting experience, Anthony Averett, and a grab bag of special teams contributors and practice squad call-ups behind him. Kevon Seymour had played just 25 defensive snaps all season. Robert Jackson had seen only special teams snaps in his two games with the Ravens. Mazzi Wilkins hadn’t played at all since joining their practice squad in early October.
At safety, the names were more familiar and more proven, but not significantly so. Geno Stone, who seldom appeared on defense over the season’s first half, wore the green dot as the defense’s on-field signal-caller. Special teams leader Anthony Levine Sr., who hadn’t played a defensive snap all season, started the game. Tony Jefferson, who’d rejoined the team only six days earlier as a practice squad member, got meaningful snaps.
Slowly but surely, the Ravens’ decimated depth revealed itself. On Rodgers’ first touchdown pass, he picked on Jackson, who’d started once in his young career. On Rodgers’ second, he went after inside linebacker Josh Bynes, who stumbled after running into a wide receiver pick he hadn’t seen. On Rodgers’ third score, he went after Jackson again.
“It’s always tough when you lose guys, and it’s out [of] the blue, but we had some guys step up today,” Averett said. “We made plays, and we just fought until the end. That’s all you could really ask [for] out of this group right now. But we went through it last year, and we battled and won some games like that last year, and we lost some last year. So we’ve just got to take what comes with it.”
For a half, the Ravens defied the odds and kept pace, entering halftime tied at 14. But in a matchup where they had to summon every lever, trick and advantage imaginable, the Ravens crucially lost momentum along the game’s margins. On a third-and-10 in Ravens territory early in the third quarter, Seymour was called for pass interference after lightly contacting wide receiver Allen Lazard.
Instead of seeing kicker Mason Crosby trot onto the field, the Ravens watched Rodgers find running back Aaron Jones uncovered on the next play for a 9-yard score and 21-14 lead. Fans’ booing only intensified.
Facing their first deficit all game, the Ravens advanced to Green Bay’s 15, where they faced fourth-and-1. But rookie left guard Ben Cleveland, starting his first career game in place of the injured Powers, flinched early. The Ravens called back their offense and leaned on kicker Justin Tucker for a 38-yard field goal, which he nailed to trim the Packers’ lead to 21-17.
Their hopes of a go-ahead score quickly faded. At the end of an 11-play, 88-yard drive five minutes later, Rodgers found wide receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling (team-high 98 yards) for a routine-looking 11-yard touchdown over the middle. After the Ravens went four-and-out on their next drive, forfeiting possession at their 29, the Packers took a 31-17 lead on a 29-yard field goal by kicker Mason Crosby.
“That’s why he’s a Hall of Famer,” Averett said of playing Rodgers. “He can put the ball where you can’t get to it, but [only] the receiver [can], really.”
The game began with the kind of Ravens momentum that the week’s events had seemingly neutered. On the game’s opening drive, Huntley marched the Ravens as far as Green Bay’s 3-yard line, helped by Andrews’ 43-yard catch-and-run. But coordinator Greg Roman’s boldness on fourth down was not rewarded, with Huntley taking a sack at the end of a seven-plus-minute possession.
Their next two drives didn’t hit any speed bumps. Huntley opened the Ravens’ scoring by scrambling to his right and finding Andrews for a diving 8-yard score in the back of the end zone. On their next red-zone trip, Huntley again found Andrews, who leaped over Savage in the corner of the end zone for a 9-yard touchdown.
There was only so much the Ravens could do to stop Rodgers, though. After going three-and-out on its first drive, Green Bay faced a third down just twice over its next two drives, both of which ended with touchdowns. Running back AJ Dillon punched it in from 2 yards for the Packers’ first score, and on their next drive, Rodgers easily found wide receiver Davante Adams, who’d turned around Jackson, from 3 yards out on third-and-goal.
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When the Ravens desperately needed a stop a few hours later, they got one, forcing a three-and-out on the Packers’ penultimate possession. But after Huntley scored and Andrews didn’t, after their third straight loss by a combined four points, they were bound for an even bigger game.
“Obviously, going for the win at the end, and we came up short, but we always fight to the end, and we do that every week,” running back Latavius Murray said. “All we can do is just get ready for the next one.”
Sunday, 1 p.m.
TV: Chs. 13, 9 Radio: 97.9 FM, 1090 AM
Line: Bengals by 2 ½