For more than three quarters against the Cincinnati Bengals, backup quarterback Tyler Huntley gave life to the dreams of many Ravens fans hoping for an extended stay in the AFC playoffs.
Then in a matter of seconds, the reverie turned into regret.
With the Ravens 1 yard away from the end zone and poised to break a 17-17 tie with either a touchdown or a field goal, Huntley attempted to leap over a pile of teammates and Bengals defenders into the end zone. But before he could cross the goal line, linebacker Logan Wilson dislodged the ball from Huntley’s hands, and defensive end Sam Hubbard scooped up the loose ball at the 2 and returned it 98 yards for what would prove to be the game-clinching score in a 24-17 loss for the Ravens on Sunday night at Paycor Stadium in Cincinnati.
How differently the outcome might have been if Huntley had scored the touchdown or even held onto the ball for kicker Justin Tucker to convert an easy field goal attempt will never be known. After the game, Huntley tried to rationalize his decision.
“I saw everybody packed in and just tried to go over the top,” said Huntley, who made the first postseason start of his career. “I thought I cleared the line. They just made a play and happened to take it all the way back.”
Coach John Harbaugh said he had no issues with the play, which he described as a push-sneak play. But he noted that Huntley was supposed to burrow his way behind the offensive line instead of going over the top.
“He’s got to go low on that,” Harbaugh said. “That’s the way the play’s designed. That was to get it. If you take it off the line of scrimmage, there’s a chance you might score, but there’s a chance they get you in the backfield, and now it’s hard to get it on fourth down. To get it there from inside the 1 [yard-line], we felt like that was the best call. We just didn’t execute it right.”
Huntley didn’t dispute Harbaugh’s explanation.
“I just tried to make a play,” he said.
Hubbard credited Wilson with punching the ball loose from Huntley’s grasp.
“I was in the right place at the right time,” he told NBC in a postgame interview. “I was just worried about getting hawked down. I was just glad I made it to the end zone without getting tracked.”
Hubbard’s touchdown was the only score of the fourth quarter for either team — an indication of just how evenly matched the AFC rivals were Sunday night. But afterward, Huntley’s teammates banded together to support him.
“He played his heart out,” said tight end Mark Andrews, who had team highs in both catches (five) and receiving yards (73). “I think anybody that watches this game is going to look at Tyler Huntley and say, ‘Wow, this guy is playing hard and playing good ball.’ Hats off to him, and he’s just going to continue to learn and get better. I love that guy.”
Added inside linebacker Roquan Smith: “It is what it is. I know he wishes a lot of different things, but we’re not going to dwell on it. I know he’s going to bust his tail this offseason and do whatever he can to be the best version of himself come next year.”
Still, even Harbaugh acknowledged the significance of Huntley’s fumble and Hubbard’s touchdown.
“Obviously, the biggest play is the quarterback sneak,” he said. “That’s the play that turns the game. That’s a 10-point swing, maybe a 14-point swing if we go for it and get it, at least a seven-point swing. It is what it is.”
Huntley made his fourth start in the last five games for usual starter Lamar Jackson as the latter continued to be sidelined by a sprained posterior collateral ligament in his left knee suffered against the Denver Broncos on Dec. 4. Huntley sat out the team’s regular-season finale against the same Bengals — a 27-16 victory for the two-time reigning AFC North champions — because of tendinitis in his right throwing shoulder and issues with his right wrist, but practiced fully on Friday.
Huntley said he talked to Jackson, who encouraged him before the game but did not make the trip to Cincinnati.
“He just told me to go do my thing,” Huntley said. “I wish he would have been able to come to the game, but,” before trailing off.
Before the game-changing error, Huntley had enjoyed what had otherwise been a solid performance. He had passed for 179 yards and two touchdowns — a 2-yard checkdown to running back J.K. Dobbins in the second quarter and a 41-yard slant-and-go to wide receiver Demarcus Robinson in the third.
Huntley completed 17 of 29 passes for 226 yards, the two scores and one interception. He also carried the ball nine times for 54 yards. He played well enough to quiet a pregame theory that undrafted rookie Anthony Brown might get a few snaps Sunday night.
But as encouraging as those numbers were, when Huntley and the offense had a chance to tie the score on their final series of the game, Huntley’s Hail Mary pass on fourth-and-20 from Cincinnati’s 27 to a crowd of Ravens receivers and Bengals defenders in the end zone was tipped by cornerback Mike Hilton and glanced off the fingertips of wide receiver James Proche II in the back of the end zone.
“I was hoping somebody came down with it, but it just didn’t happen,” Huntley said.
With no time remaining, Cincinnati cemented its AFC divisional matchup at the Buffalo Bills on Sunday at 3 p.m. For Huntley and the Ravens, the offseason beckons.
Huntley admitted that the gaffe might haunt him for a while.
“I’m going to be thinking about that the whole offseason, just one play,” he said. “They won the game, and it’s going to be hard, but that’s going to motivate me to grind hard, work hard, and be ready for next year.”