Four days before the NFL’s wildest Sunday of the fall, before yet another Ravens comeback in Baltimore, John Harbaugh seemed to see the future.
All season, through his team’s highs and the lows, through the many games with heart-stopping finishes and the few that allowed for more regular breathing patterns, the Ravens coach had found himself returning to a mantra: This is a week-to-week league. Whatever a team can do one week might not matter the next. Whatever the Ravens could do last year was immaterial to this year.
“My players unquestionably believe me; it’s you all that don’t believe me, because I keep having to bring it up every week,” Harbaugh said Wednesday, only half-joking, after the Ravens had moved to first place during their bye week. “But it’s the great thing about the NFL. It’s the great thing. It’s why it’s so much fun. It’s why it leaves you so many scars, because it’s just going to be unpredictable.”
Sunday qualified as unpredictable. The Ravens trailed the Minnesota Vikings by 11 points late early in the second quarter and by 14 points early in the third quarter. Then they led by a touchdown late in the fourth quarter. The game went to overtime anyway, where kicker Justin Tucker’s last-minute, 36-yard field goal secured a 34-31 win.
The narrow victory inside M&T Bank Stadium lifted the Ravens (6-2) to the top of the AFC, where, as of Sunday evening, just one other team had two losses through Week 9. (And it could be just one by early Monday morning; the Derrick Henry-less Tennessee Titans were playing the Los Angeles Rams on “Sunday Night Football.”) The Ravens’ pole position near the NFL’s midway point might not make a lot of sense; their offense has run hot and cold and their defense has been a friend to big-play receivers everywhere.
Within the broader context of the league’s Week 9 results, though, it makes far more sense. The Ravens’ win was one of the few that seemed to go according to plan, even if the game itself was anything but ordinary.
In the AFC North, the Cleveland Browns pushed past a week of Odell Beckham Jr.-related drama to rout the suddenly reeling Bengals in Cincinnati, 41-16, despite outgaining them by just 13 yards.
In the AFC East, the Buffalo Bills fell to the woebegone Jaguars in Jacksonville, 9-6, effectively squandering any claim they might’ve had to AFC supremacy two weeks ago.
In the AFC West, the Raiders stumbled in their first game since former wide receiver Henry Ruggs III’s involvement in a fatal car accident, returning to Las Vegas with a 23-16 loss to the struggling New York Giants. The Kansas City Chiefs, meanwhile, leaned on their defense — yes, their defense — to get past the Aaron Rodgers-less Green Bay Packers, 13-7, and finally get back above .500.
The NFC was not spared the league’s lunacy, either. The Dallas Cowboys got back star quarterback Dak Prescott, but trailed the Von Miller-less Denver Broncos by as many as 30 points in an eventual 30-16 home loss.
All of which makes the Ravens’ win Sunday even more remarkable. They’ve had to swap out a tried-and-true strategy of running teams over and running out the clock for a more improvisational tact. And it’s worked, with wins in three of the four games in which they’ve trailed by double digits. Quarterback Lamar Jackson had entered this season winless in his six starts when facing such a deficit, including in the playoffs.
“It’s been up and down, but we know how good we can be,” inside linebacker Patrick Queen said. “We know where we can be at the end of the year. So our focus is just now on [Thursday’s game against] Miami and just taking it one day at a time. When we get to that game, we’ll just take it one play at a time. That’s all I can really say about that right now.”
The Ravens needed to be patient Sunday. The Vikings (3-5) needed just eight plays to go over 150 yards in total offense. They needed just two drives to make it look like they were cueing up a replay of the Cincinnati Bengals’ Week 7 blowout win in Baltimore. Quarterback Kirk Cousins found wide receiver Justin Jefferson for a 50-yard touchdown and the game’s opening score. Running back Dalvin Cook’s winding 66-yard carry set up a goal-line touchdown and 14-3 lead.
Even when the Ravens seemed to have found a footing, if not equilibrium, unlikely struggles undercut them. Kene Nwangwu’s 98-yard kickoff return for a touchdown to open the second half restored the Vikings’ two-touchdown lead, 24-10, and gave Jackson and the Ravens yet another mountain to climb.
“They were playing stout in there like they do,” Harbaugh said of the Vikings. “I think over time, the idea for us was to keep them on the field. We felt like if we were able to keep them on the field, we’d be able to extend, and then we’d be able to get in a rhythm and execute. We just weren’t able to keep them on the field enough in the first half. So it was our lack of execution, really, and their execution to get us off the field.”
Over the first half, Minnesota’s defense had played like the top-10 unit it was over the season’s first two months. It seemed unlikely that the Vikings’ unit would fold as the Chiefs’ had in Week 2, or as the Indianapolis Colts’ had in Week 5. The Ravens entered halftime with just 148 yards (4.4 per play). Jackson was 8-for-17 for 65 yards, a touchdown and an interception.
Then the Ravens’ offensive approach changed, and the Vikings’ personnel misfortunes started to reveal themselves. Because of injuries and the coronavirus, Minnesota was without its top pass rusher (defensive end Danielle Hunter), top run stuffer (defensive tackle Michael Pierce), top cornerback (Patrick Peterson) and top safety (Harrison Smith). Starting cornerback Bashaud Breeland played sparingly, too, after suffering a first-half groin injury.
Over three straight second-half touchdown drives, the Ravens found ways to take advantage. Jackson worried less about looking deep and instead found targets on quick hitters, everyone from fullback Patrick Ricard (three catches for 35 yards) to wide receiver Marquise “Hollywood” Brown (nine catches for 116 yards). Their running game started to wear down the Vikings’ defensive front, led by Jackson (21 carries for 120 yards) and running back Devonta Freeman (13 carries for 79 yards).
And when conventional means faltered, they took advantage on the margins — sometimes metaphorically, sometimes literally. Ricard’s 1-yard touchdown catch in the third quarter was one of three fourth-down attempts the Ravens attempted and converted. Wide receiver Devin Duvernay’s one-handed 5-yard touchdown early in the fourth quarter was ruled a catch only because his left knee landed just centimeters short of the back of the end zone.
But because Ravens games this season have all the flow and rhythm of rush-hour traffic, running back Le’Veon Bell’s go-ahead 1-yard score with 3:29 remaining was not enough to put away the Vikings. Wide receiver Adam Thielen’s 1-yard touchdown catch with 63 seconds left erased the Ravens’ first lead and ended a drive in which the Ravens also lost safety DeShon Elliott to a likely season-ending pectoral and biceps injury. And so the Ravens headed to overtime. Again.
“I’m not trying to be going to overtime every week,” joked Jackson, who finished 27-for-41 for 266 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions. “Oh, my God. But I just feel our team did a great job … going to three overtimes this season. We didn’t lay down. We saw the score was tilted early in the game. Our guys just fought.”
They fought to the edge of field-goal range in overtime, only for outside linebacker Anthony Barr to tip a pass to himself for an interception. They stiffened up to force a three-and-out on the Vikings’ ensuing position. And they ran and ran during a decisive 10-play, 82-yard drive that set up Tucker for his second game-winning kick this season.
By the time Tucker lined up for what became his 53rd straight made field goal in the fourth quarter and overtime, it was clear the Ravens had earned a win. They’d outgained the Vikings 500-318. They’d finished with nearly triple the number of first downs (36 to 13). They’d nearly doubled Minnesota in time of possession (46:04 to 23:40).
Still, Tucker felt a twinge of anxiety as he readied for the snap and hold. There was new sod on the field, which was a concern. Behind him, the out-of-town scoreboard showed a slate of final scores that no one could’ve reasonably predicted.
“If you’re not feeling a little bit nervous, like, are you really living?” Tucker said, a gleam in his eye, like he lived for the drama. This season, he doesn’t have to look far to find it.
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Line: Ravens by 6 ½