The strangest, longest week in Ravens history ended with the team’s third-string quarterback hoping for one last drive. It ended with a roster depleted by a coronavirus outbreak and injuries standing tall against the NFL’s last unbeaten team. It ended with an instant classic of a rivalry game that raised uncomfortable questions and produced indelible moments.
But when it did end early Wednesday night, after dozens of roster moves and six dramatic days of delays and three NFL-ordered postponements, the Ravens had lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers, 19-14. They’d pushed through socially distanced walk-throughs. They’d seen teammates fall ill, and family members, too. It was a game few outside a Heinz Field locker room missing quarterback Lamar Jackson and eight other starters saw winnable.
Incredibly, though, it was ... until, less incredibly, it wasn’t. And now the team will have to take its medicine. The Ravens (6-5) have lost three straight games for the first time since November 2018, a regular season that ended with an unlikely six wins in seven games, an AFC North title and a postseason berth.
If the Ravens have any Super Bowl hopes — Pittsburgh (11-0) ended the team’s bid for an AFC North title three-peat Wednesday — they’ll need a similar finish. They entered Week 12 one spot out of the seven-team AFC playoff picture, and now they’ll have to play the visiting Dallas Cowboys on Tuesday night after a shortened week.
It is not a perilous schedule, but the Ravens have little room for error. They cannot afford to fall to the Cowboys or the Jacksonville Jaguars or the New York Giants or the Joe Burrow-less Cincinnati Bengals. A Week 14 loss in Cleveland, to an 8-3 Browns team that is by far their toughest remaining opponent, might also prove fatal.
It is up to the Ravens to decide what Wednesday’s game becomes: a bittersweet what-could’ve-been in a wasted season, or a turning point in a redemptive December.
“Whatever happened, they didn’t blink,” said Ravens coach John Harbaugh, who acknowledged that the the outbreak that had closed the team facility for nearly a week hadn’t been managed perfectly. “That was our goal, not to blink, because we’re not going to be pushed around by something that we can’t control. We controlled the things we could control in that sense, and that’s the real test. I think that’s the type of adversity that great things are built on.”
After 57 minutes of ugly, AFC North football, the kind the Ravens favored, the team found hope Wednesday in the most unlikely of partnerships: Trace McSorley and wide receiver Marquise “Hollywood” Brown. The Ravens’ first passing first down all game was a 70-yard catch-and-run touchdown courtesy of a second-year practice squad quarterback, who’d never thrown an NFL pass until he replaced a hobbled Robert Grifffin III (hamstring), and the first-round wide receiver who’d struggled all season.
With the Steelers’ lead trimmed to 19-14, the Ravens had a chance to get the ball back and, against all odds, deliver a 12th-round, knockout blow. But on third-and-6, from Pittsburgh’s 17-yard line, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (36-for-51 for 266 yards, a touchdown and an interception) threw a floater over the middle that seemed to hang forever, the balance of the game seemingly with it.
The ball had all the velocity of a slow-pitch softball but the accuracy of a laser-guided strike. In between retreating outside linebacker Tyus Bowser and hard-charging safety Chuck Clark was Steelers wide receiver James Washington, who caught the 16-yard completion (and Clark’s outstretched arm) and held on. Time would soon run out. One year after the Ravens had swept the Steelers, Pittsburgh returned the favor.
“Honestly, we’re disappointed that we didn’t win this game, but we fought,” defensive back-linebacker Anthony Levine Sr. said. “That’s a good football team over there, and we respect them, but they respect us, too. We fought, and we gave them everything that we had. It came down to a couple of plays here and there, but at the end of the day, we fought like Ravens do. We can walk out of here with our heads held high.”
The game had all the hallmarks of a memorable rivalry game, including controversial officiating. After a 39-yard run by Griffin pushed the Ravens into Steelers territory late in the first half, their running game (129 yards on 28 carries overall) kept cutting away at Pittsburgh’s defense. With less than a minute left, the Ravens, trailing 12-7, had the ball at Pittsburgh’s 4 and one timeout remaining.
They came away with nothing. Nothing except regret and agitation. With about 30 seconds left, running back Justice Hill had been unlucky not to score, downed by an unwitting defender — tight end Luke Willson — at the 1. So the Ravens called a timeout, huddled, then went back up the gut with running back Gus Edwards. He couldn’t get in, either.
Worse, he had seemingly half of Pittsburgh’s defense lying atop him, about as eager to leave as teenagers loitering inside a 7-Eleven. When Griffin finally snapped the ball, there were three seconds remaining. He could’ve spiked it, to set up a field goal. But the Ravens’ intention after the timeout had been to call two plays, if necessary. So instead, he looked for Willson, wide open on a play-action pass.
Willson should’ve had it, and for a second, he did. But safety Minkah Fitzpatrick intervened at the last second, ripping the ball out. Harbaugh was apoplectic. The Steelers were jubilant. And the Ravens still trailed in a game where points would not come easily.
“I think that’s in the rule book: delay of game on the defense,” Brown (four catches for 85 yards) said of the Steelers’ tactics. “But I’m not a referee. I don’t know.”
The noncall was the second to cost the Ravens against Pittsburgh this season. In Week 8, a 28-24 Steelers win, Pittsburgh was fortunate to not have more time added while defensive end Cameron Heyward was down on the field, behind the play, on the Ravens’ potential go-ahead drive. The Steelers instead were charged an injury timeout once Jackson snapped the ball to stop the clock. The Ravens ran just two more plays and couldn’t find the end zone.
But if the Ravens felt like their first matchup was a missed opportunity, their second must have seemed like a Herculean task. From the start, their challenge was monumental. After one of the worst coronavirus outbreaks in sports, the Ravens had lost 17 players, including nine starters and seven Pro Bowl players. In their place were 10 practice squad call-ups and a lineup of inexperienced contributors.
Harbaugh told NBC before the game that the team had only “kind of” practiced for the game — two walk-throughs after a week of virtual meetings and tension with the NFL about just when they’d play. That rust soon became evident. On the Ravens’ fourth play from scrimmage, Griffin (7-for-12 for 33 yards, along with 68 rushing yards) and Edwards botched the handoff on a zone-read play from their 25-yard line. Only a goal-line stand and Bowser’s second interception in as many weeks kept the Steelers out of the end zone.
The Ravens’ next drive was somehow even worse. Four weeks after Jackson opened the Ravens’ Week 8 loss with a pick-six, Griffin gave away a touchdown himself. Cornerback Joe Haden stepped in front of a pass to wide receiver James Proche II and ran it back 14 yards for the game’s opening score. Steelers kicker Chris Boswell missed the extra-point attempt, but it didn’t seem like it’d matter in the long run. Not as the Ravens lost cornerback Jimmy Smith to a groin injury, then Griffin to his first-ever hamstring injury, and even briefly cornerback Marcus Peters to a lower-body injury.
The Ravens would open the game with three three-and-outs and Griffin’s one-and-done, but they found a way to keep Pittsburgh in their sights anyway. When Steelers returner Ray-Ray McCloud fielded a punt from Sam Koch at his 16-yard line, he didn’t see cornerback Davontae Harris coming. McCloud had the ball and then he didn’t, and then it was in Levine’s hands. Four plays later, Edwards was in the end zone, and the Ravens had a 7-6 lead. A surreal start to match a surreal past 10 days.
But the lead did not stand. There was just too much to reckon with. As Ravens players processed their feelings after the game — anger and hope, irritation and pride — it was hard to tell what they found most remarkable: that they’d made it through the week at all, or that they’d had a chance to end it with a win.
“There’s a lot of fight in this team,” guard Bradley Bozeman said. “This team is fighters. They came in, they came into the fight, they were ready to roll. We’re going to get a lot of guys healthy back. We’re going to just build from here. This is just the beginning. So we’re ready to work.”
Tuesday, 8 p.m.
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