It was the one way no one at M&T Bank Stadium thought the game could end.
Two-hundred and forty-five times in his regular-season and postseason NFL career, Justin Tucker had lined up to kick an extra point. And 245 times, he’d knocked the ball clean through the uprights.
As it came off his foot on attempt No. 246, Tucker felt certain he’d struck truly. The ball would split the sticks and the Ravens would be tied 24-24 with a chance to outlast the hard-charging New Orleans Saints in overtime.
Then, to his horror, Tucker watched the kick veer right in the swirling wind.
As Saints players began waving their arms in triumph, it took the 70,639 fans in the stands — and many of Tucker’s teammates — an extra second to process what had happened.
The best kicker in the NFL had missed. And a few seconds of game time later, the Ravens lost, 24-23.
“You play long enough, you’re going to have a kick that you want back,” Tucker said afterward. “And tonight was that night for me.”
In a league beset by unreliable kicking, Tucker is a rock for his franchise, a rare weapon appreciated around the NFL. His miss Sunday felt so remarkable because fans and teammates take his excellence for granted.
In the losing locker room, a parade of Ravens — from guard Marshal Yanda to quarterback Joe Flacco — approached Tucker to remind him of all the games he’d won and to affirm their faith in all the kicks he’d make going forward.
“He’ll handle it great,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “Justin is the best — he’s the best in the business at what he does. He’ll be back next week winning games for us; I’m very certain of that.”
Tucker didn’t have any technical explanation, not yet anyway. “I felt like when the ball came off my foot, that I hit it just how I wanted to,” he said.
The wind was treacherous. Earlier in the game, Tucker struck a 31-yard field-goal attempt solidly, only to watch it wobble back and forth as it barely stayed within the right upright. No excuses, though.
“I can’t tell you exactly what happened, but at the end of the day, I feel like I cost us the game,” he said.
Tucker’s miss brought a startling end to a tense showdown between one of the NFL’s best offenses and one of its best defenses. The Ravens built a 17-7 lead in the third quarter, only to watch masterful Saints quarterback Drew Brees lead his team to 17 unanswered points in the fourth.
Flacco mounted one final response in the last two minutes, completing six straight passes to move the Ravens 81 yards and into the end zone on a 14-yard connection with John Brown (who finished with 134 yards on seven catches).
Had Tucker made his extra-point try, the Ravens would have needed to hold the Saints scoreless for 24 seconds to push the game to overtime. That was no sure thing given the way Brees was coming on. He made several miraculous throws down the stretch, when Ravens defenders appeared to have him in their grasp.
The Ravens came in with the league’s best scoring defense and a season-long streak of holding their opponents without a second-half touchdown. But they had not imposed their will on an offense as potent as this one. And as well as they played for three quarters, it’s possible no defense can stymie the 5-1 Saints for 60 minutes.
Given the back-and-forth battle between contenders, Tucker’s teammates said one man should not shoulder so much blame for the final result.
“We could have played better defensively and gotten off the field in third-down situations,” safety Eric Weddle said. “We could have held them to less points, and obviously, our offense could have played better. It’s never one guy.”
Tucker made a point of walking into the postgame news conference to face questions on one of his lowest nights as a professional. His holder, Sam Koch, and his long snapper, Morgan Cox, watched from the side of the room. They form a team within a team — the self-dubbed “Wolfpack.”
Koch said he saw what everyone else did from his holder’s position.
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“It was a great snap, we got the ball down with the laces out, and by the time I looked up, the ball was going right,” he remembered. “It looked like it started right down the middle and then caught a gust of wind and started to fade to the right.”
Koch and Cox love to poke gentle fun at Tucker for his outgoing, hyper-confident personality. But Koch said that very nature will help his friend endure this disappointment.
“I only wish I had some of his enthusiasm and his mindset to get through these things,” the ever-understated punter and holder said.
Tucker smiled when asked about having his closest colleagues in the room with him. “I’ve made some great relationships, and those relationships, the guys in the locker room that have my back, that means the world to me,” he said.
He added that he’d “let this hurt for another couple of hours” but planned to change nothing in the wake of the miss. He’s always preached the value of approaching every kick the same, whether it’s in the middle of a summer workout or at the end of a playoff game.
“I’ll look at the game like I always do,” he said. “Nothing will change for me, I’ll tell you that. I’ll look at the game like I always do, look at the video from it, and do everything I can to compartmentalize what happened this evening and move on from it in a positive way.”
A few moments later, a Ravens staffer draped a comforting arm over Tucker’s shoulder as he removed his shoes. It was a bad night but just one.