The football hurtled through the Pittsburgh air, end over end, its trajectory unknowable but its magnitude obvious. As Ravens kicker Justin Tucker watched his 46-yard field-goal attempt take off, going wide of the chewed-up left hash marks from which he had just tried to end a weird and wild AFC North clash, he hoped it would find its way back. So much in one afternoon had already gone off script.

His quarterback had entered Sunday’s game against the Pittsburgh Steelers as one of the NFL’s top performers and left it with maybe his worst start as a starter, two interceptions bouncing off reliable targets and into enemy hands. A newish Steelers starting quarterback had been knocked out, and his backup, an undrafted rookie, had almost become a hero. There had been Ravens injuries, some nagging and some more serious, all of them important. There had been a successful punch-out of a ball, overtime redemption for a costly and unsuccessful first punch-out.

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But all that mattered now, almost 70 minutes into a game that seemed determined to go on forever and drag the sport with it, kicking and screaming, was the toppling ball. It was headed wide left. Then, suddenly, it swung back, like a little brown sedan merging onto some speedway just before the shoulder ended and the window closed. The kick was good, barely, and the Ravens’ win was theirs, mercifully, 26-23.

“My dad shot me a text right after the game: ‘I think an archangel might have just blown that ball inside the upright just a little bit,’ ” said Tucker, whose second game-winning kick in Pittsburgh in the past five years was the 14th overall of his career. “As soon as it came off my foot, I knew it would have a chance, just given the conditions. But several of the kicks I had today I wished I hit them a little bit better. … At the end of the day, to come through and make kicks and help this team win, it’s a blessing.”

The madcap win ended the Ravens’ two-game losing streak and sent them back to Baltimore with hopes of reclaiming first place in the AFC North. On Sunday, they’ll face the winless Cincinnati Bengals at M&T Bank Stadium, a game they cannot overlook before a daunting trip to Seattle to face the 4-1 Seahawks on Oct. 20 and a home matchup against the undefeated New England Patriots on Nov. 3 after the bye week.

Sunday’s game will be tough to forget. What opened as a potential showcase for two second-year quarterbacks ended as a battle of attrition. Lamar Jackson, in his first road start against an AFC North opponent, was happy to have avoided the first three-game losing streak of his career. But there was much room for improvement.

A week after the Cleveland Browns sacked Jackson four times in a shocking 40-25 win, the Steelers tagged him for five. He finished 19-for-28 for 161 yards, a touchdown and three interceptions, his 54.9 passer rating the lowest of his career as a starter. He added 14 carries for a game-high 70 yards, and it was telling that Ravens coach John Harbaugh said his “best play” all game might have been a busted play he turned into a 1-yard gain before Tucker’s game-winner.

In some respects, Jackson was unfortunate. Tight end and top target Mark Andrews was upended right as (and maybe a smidge before) his second-quarter pass arrived over a crowded middle and fell into Steelers cornerback Kameron Kelly’s hands. In the third quarter, tight end Nick Boyle’s full-extension attempt tipped a pass into the unlikely hands of linebacker Devin Bush, who had his head turned away from the ball on the play. Andrews and rookie wide receiver Marquise “Hollywood" Brown (three catches for 22 yards and a touchdown) cycled in and out of the game with minor injuries.

Then there was the bad second-quarter interception, thrown when the Ravens could have run out the clock and entered halftime with a touchdown lead. All three turnovers led to Steelers points on a day when the Ravens defense finally looked up to speed.

”I think the biggest thing that I took away from the past two weeks: We’re making small mistakes, and teams are just exploiting them,” said cornerback Marlon Humphrey, a standout on a unit that held Pittsburgh to 269 yards after consecutive 500-yard showings.

“So you've got to cover up all those holes in the defense and different things, but the biggest thing was, it's not that they were doing something crazy. Teams weren't doing anything out of the ordinary. Guys weren't doing their job. I wasn't doing my job, and everyone just felt like we all need to play a little bit better to cover up for those mistakes."

Even a secondary thinned further Sunday — safety Tony Jefferson will miss the rest of the season with a knee injury, Harbaugh announced — authored maybe the game’s two most consequential plays.

Safety Earl Thomas III’s high hit on Mason Rudolph knocked the Steelers quarterback unconscious and ultimately out of the game in the third quarter. In place of Rudolph, who was starting only because star Ben Roethlisberger had suffered a season-ending elbow injury in Week 2, came undrafted rookie Devlin Hodges, a former star at Samford — a Football Championship Subdivision program.

Pittsburgh’s subsequent touchdown drive energized the game and made possible a nightmare scenario for the Ravens: consecutive losses to the Kansas City Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes in a shootout, to the Browns’ Baker Mayfield in a home rout and to a third-stringer in Pittsburgh. But the Ravens were sound enough on defense and offense to set up Tucker’s expected excellence. His 48-yard field goal with 10 seconds left forced overtime.

In that pressure-cooker scenario, the game continued to do headstands. Rather than take the ball after winning the overtime coin toss and go for the game-winner, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin kicked to the Ravens and dared them to move the ball. They couldn’t, and Pittsburgh took over at its 32.

After missing on an admittedly unwise punch-out attempt in the first quarter on a catch-and-run touchdown by wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster (seven catches for 75 yards), Humphrey tried it again, the stakes elevated and his accuracy improved. The ball, jarred loose, did a waltz near the sideline before veering away from linebacker Josh Bynes and Hodges and into Humphrey’s path. The fumble had a mind of its own, just like the game.

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Two minutes later, the ball sneaked by the upright, Tucker’s fourth field goal was good, and the Ravens had the win that they wanted, that they needed. It had not come easily. But they had done just enough, and just in time.

“We got the ‘W,’ " outside linebacker Matthew Judon said. “That’s all that really matters. It was a hard-fought game. Those guys are good. They made a lot of plays. We just came up with the last two.”

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Bengals@Ravens

Sunday, 1 p.m.

TV: Ch. 13

Radio: 97.9 FM, 1090 AM

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