CINCINNATI — The Ravens outplayed and outhit the Cincinnati Bengals for most of the night but came up short after quarterback Tyler Huntley fumbled at the goal line and watched Sam Hubbard return the ball 98 yards for a game-winning touchdown in a 24-17 loss Sunday night. This agonizing result was too familiar for a team that finished the season feeling it was better than its record showed.
Here are five things we learned from the Ravens’ final game of the 2022 season.
Tyler Huntley was so close to being the hero; instead, he’ll have to live with the play that lost the game.
Huntley had just put his team in position to win. All week, he had heard the Ravens could not beat the heavily favored Bengals without Lamar Jackson at quarterback. National reporters had said he would split time with undrafted rookie Anthony Brown.
All that doubt, and here he was playing the game of his life. On consecutive snaps of a tied playoff game, he found Mark Andrews for 25 yards along the sideline and sprinted 35 yards through a gash in the Cincinnati defense to put the Ravens on the cusp of a go-ahead touchdown. On third-and-goal, he leaped for pay dirt, only to be met high in the air by Bengals linebacker Logan Wilson, who knocked the ball loose. Somehow, it landed in the hands of defensive end Sam Hubbard, who chugged 98 yards for the longest fumble return in postseason history.
With one incredible (an overused word but it fits) twist, the Bengals leaped ahead 24-17 — the final margin of a game Huntley and his teammates had controlled.
How cruel sports can be.
Neither Huntley’s teammates nor coach John Harbaugh tried to pretend the fumble was just another play. “Obviously, the biggest play of the game,” Harbaugh said afterward.
He wished Huntley had burrowed through the defense rather than trying to vault over it, but Huntley did not sound so sure. “Maybe they wouldn’t have returned it all the way,” he said. “But at the time, I just felt like everybody was packed in. They shot for our O-linemen’s legs. … I just tried to make a play.”
Running back J.K. Dobbins, like many Ravens fans, felt Huntley “should have never been in that situation.” He wanted the ball. “I believe I would have put it in the end zone,” he said.
But that was not reality. Instead, Huntley had to live with a moment that undermined all of his good work on a night when he threw for 226 yards and two touchdowns, ran for 54 more and went toe-to-toe with Joe Burrow, the guy who went No. 1 overall the same year he went undrafted.
Teammates did their best to stand up for him.
“He played his heart out,” Andrews said. “I love that guy.”
Defensive end Calais Campbell, the ultimate voice of experience, consoled him in the locker room.
But Huntley knew the fumble would weigh on his heart and mind for a long time to come. “I’m going to be thinking about that the whole offseason — just how one play, they won the game,” he said. “It’s a whole different situation if that doesn’t happen.”
The Ravens are tired of feeling proud in defeat.
We have heard similar words so many times after narrow defeats in high-stakes games.
“I think people can say what they want about our team, but if they don’t think we’re a good team, then I don’t think they’re paying attention,” Harbaugh said.
“It’s not always the best team that wins,” linebacker Roquan Smith said. “You can’t dwell on it. You can’t get down about it. That’s life. … It’s all about how we’re going to respond next year.”
The Ravens earned the right to say these things by outplaying the defending AFC champions on enemy turf. At the same time, they have to understand their fans are fed up with noble defeat.
The fact is, offensive coordinator Greg Roman called a goal-line play that did not work when they had a chance to seize control of the game in the fourth quarter. Many who root for the Ravens will not be happy if he still has his job in a week.
Others groaned as Harbaugh declined to call a timeout as 34 seconds ticked off the clock with the Ravens at the Cincinnati 17-yard line on their final drive of the game. Harbaugh said he wanted to score without giving the ball back to the Bengals, but again, that won’t satisfy many who watched.
Difficult as it was to digest, the loss fit the theme of squandered promise that characterized so much of this Ravens’ season.
There was a time, after they handled the Saints in New Orleans with Smith newly installed at the heart of their defense, when the 2022 Ravens appeared ready to go on a run. They were 6-3, with time to rest and heal thanks to a serendipitous bye week and a relatively easy schedule awaiting them down the stretch.
When the games resumed, however, their offense remained in hibernation. They won games in which they scored 13, 10 and 16 points, and their status as a contender grew more tenuous when Jackson limped to the locker room after the first quarter of their Dec. 4 victory over the Denver Broncos.
Few predicted they would have a chance against the streaking Bengals, who no doubt wanted to humiliate them after a contentious regular-season finale on the same field. So, of course, the Ravens played their best game in weeks. Huntley pushed the ball downfield. Andrews made clutch grabs. The defense bottled up Burrow for the third time this season.
They did so much right and still, they ended the night searching for the words to explain why it had not worked out.
J.K. Dobbins will be a pivotal figure as the Ravens turn their attention to 2023.
Dobbins could not contain his anger after the game. He expected to carry the Ravens to victory and could not understand why he wasn’t given more opportunity to do so.
“I’m a guy who feels like if I’m on the field all the time, I can help this team win, and I wasn’t,” he said after carrying 13 times for 62 yards and catching four passes for 43 and a touchdown. “It’s the playoffs. Why am I not out there?”
He was not done, saying he had expressed his frustrations to coaches on the sideline: “I’m tired of it. I’m a playmaker. I’m a guy that my teammates feed off me when I’m on the field. I should be out there all the time.”
While many fans shared Dobbins’ fury when it was over, others will likely perceive immaturity or selfishness in his comments.
Dobbins is one of the most outspokenly ambitious players on the team. Last week, he said he would want the game on his back even if Jackson was at quarterback. This rare drive helped push him from the high school fields of small-town Texas to a 2,000-yard season at Ohio State. It fueled him to average 5.7 yards per carry this season after a year spent rehabilitating a terrible knee injury. He had the confidence to put his season on hold for a follow-up surgery when he knew his knee still was not right.
Harbaugh would probably prefer not to hear Dobbins say he should have had the ball instead of Huntley on a specific play. But he admires his No. 1 running back’s underlying desire to be great. Dobbins was the Ravens’ most dynamic offensive player in Jackson’s absence. He could be one of the key stars on the team next fall if he channels his frustration into self-improvement, as he promised he would.
Anger is useless if spewed chaotically, but no one would accuse Dobbins of living his life without purpose.
Ja’Marr Chase reminded the Ravens what they lack.
The Ravens have developed an effective defensive formula against Burrow, giving him few chances to shoot for explosive plays.
But even in a tense game, with every yard hard to come by, great playmakers transcend. Chase is Cincinnati’s great playmaker.
He did not embarrass the Ravens as he had in his 201-yard breakout last season, but he found every crevice in their coverage schemes, making the third-down catches that kept the Bengals moving as they built a first-half lead. The Ravens knew he was public enemy No. 1 and still, he beat them.
Cornerback Marlon Humphrey gave the second-year star credit for adjusting when his favored vertical routes were unavailable. “We wanted to play a little off here, a little press here,” he said. “I think they did a really good job of, based off what we were doing, they did something different. They obviously had some stuff where Chase was going to be a big target, and it basically worked pretty good.”
Chase’s production was yet another reminder of the void the Ravens need to fill at wide receiver. Andrews is the closest they have to a pass catcher who can win against any coverage. They will again hope for 2021 first-round pick Rashod Bateman to break out in 2023 after he lost most of this season to injury. But no Baltimore wide receiver caught more than two passes against the Bengals, continuing a trend we’ve seen for most of this year. Something has to change — talent, scheme or both — because the Ravens start every big game at a deficit.
Buckle up for the season of Lamar.
All too often over the past few days, the Ravens’ preparations for their climactic rematch with the Bengals felt like a mere subplot to the intrigue around their franchise quarterback, his swollen knee and his unsettled future.
When it became obvious last Wednesday that Jackson would not in fact swoop in to save the season, we swiftly turned to debating what that meant.
Was he more seriously hurt than anyone realized and had the Ravens created false hope by expressing so much optimism about his prognosis in the hours and days after he limped to the locker room in Week 13? This was the most popular theory among fans after Jackson spoke via Twitter, saying his knee remained unstable and that he could not “give a 100% of myself to my guys and fans.”
But a less sympathetic line of thinking emerged Friday and Saturday. First, Ravens wide receiver Sammy Watkins was quoted in The Washington Post, saying of Jackson: “I hope he hobbles back out there.” Then, Michael Vick, one of Jackson’s childhood heroes, delivered a pointed message to the Ravens quarterback on Fox’s Saturday pregame show: “Put a brace on it. Let’s go.” With these comments, we began to glean that not everyone in the NFL brotherhood endorsed Jackson’s reluctance to play at less than full strength.
Teammates were more forgiving after the game, which Jackson did not attend. “You know, a 50-60% Lamar Jackson, I just don’t think he was really healthy enough to go out there,” Humphrey said. “He kind of made that clear with the tweet he sent. There was a lot of speculation with him not having the contract, this, that and the third. But you know, I don’t even know if I should say this, but he’s like limping around the facility. That’s kind of the crazy thing that people don’t see. Obviously, we knew that he wasn’t going to be out there with us, but hopefully we sign him to a big-term deal and he’s a Raven with me forever.”
The Ravens nearly won Sunday without the player around whom their offense was designed. But the story always tilts back to Jackson, and he will dominate the headlines around this team for the foreseeable future. Since he and the Ravens put contract negotiations on hold before the season, we have assumed those discussions would resume and that general manager Eric DeCosta would be ready to use the franchise tag — in the neighborhood of $45 million — to keep Jackson in place for 2023 if no extension could be reached.
This is a complicated enough story on those terms. Is Jackson in a weaker negotiating position after injuries cut short each of his last two seasons? Would he hold out (or hold-in) next summer if the Ravens resort to the franchise tag? But it will be far more complicated if there’s a genuine disconnect between Jackson and the franchise over the handling of his knee injury. For the first time in this whole saga, the idea of a trade does not seem far-fetched. The Ravens have a championship-caliber defense and several key pieces — left tackle Ronnie Stanley, tight end Mark Andrews, running back J.K. Dobbins — on offense. They could try to exchange Jackson for enough draft capital to pick his replacement and still not free-fall out of the playoff picture. For all the winning and excitement he has brought to Baltimore, maybe the Ravens no longer want to be held in thrall to the drama around their quarterback. Perhaps it will not come to a breakup, but every possibility is on the table as we look ahead to the next few months.