The Ravens lost Lamar Jackson to a knee injury and came perilously close to a defeat that would have cast doubt on their playoff chances. But backup quarterback Tyler Huntley mustered a 91-yard touchdown drive to drag them past the hopeless Denver Broncos and buy them time to await Jackson’s return.
Here are five things we learned from Sunday’s 10-9 victory:
The Ravens might look back at this as the week when they avoided skidding off a cliff.
For all the wasted leads and unfinished drives that had blighted their first 11 games, this was a new level of peril for the 2022 Ravens.
Their franchise quarterback was not going to burst from the tunnel to save them. Without him, their offense had sputtered to 99 yards across a quartet of fruitless second-half drives, two of which ended with interceptions. An air of dread hung over M&T Bank Stadium, with fans booing the offense’s every halting move. They had five minutes to find the elusive touchdown that would avert a dispiriting setback against the hapless Broncos (3-9).
Their hopes almost died on their own 18-yard line, when tight end Mark Andrews needed a second push to convert on a fourth-and-1 sneak. Later, it was backup quarterback Tyler Huntley who faked a handoff to Devin Duvernay and burrowed up the middle for 3 yards on fourth-and-2 at the Denver 18. The Ravens kept surviving by the skin on their knuckles until Huntley — 8-for-10 passing on the last drive — pushed over the goal line with 28 seconds remaining.
Afterward, they spoke with the fevered enthusiasm of men who had walked away from a frightful car accident unscathed. They did not care that their offense had failed for 55 minutes, that they had pushed their home fans to the edge of despair. They knew only survival.
“It’s not the time to talk about that stuff,” coach John Harbaugh said when asked about his offense’s shortcomings. “It’s game to game right now. There are no big narratives; the big narrative questions, they’re irrelevant. What matters is the next game and trying to find a way to win it.”
There are ample reasons to worry about where the Ravens (8-4) are headed, especially if quarterback Lamar Jackson’s knee injury lingers. Their offense has looked lost too much of the time since their Week 9 bye. They’re falling into life-or-death struggles with opponents we expected them to handle. They’re entering their final rush of AFC North games far from peak form.
But most pro football seasons, even successful ones, are stories of attrition and opportunism more than beautiful conquest. Playoff teams look back at the games they did not blow — think Ray Rice’s fourth-and-29 scamper in San Diego for the 2012 Ravens — as fondly as the ones they dominated. Will this escape against the Broncos be that game for the 2022 Ravens?
“It does build momentum; it gives you that little bit of strength,” defensive end Calais Campbell said. “When the story’s written and we’re looking back, who knows? It could be [that pivotal game]. But at the end of the day, we’ve got to write the story, and the story’s still unwritten.”
Despite the mettle they showed, the Ravens’ hopes for a happy ending are tied to Lamar Jackson’s recovery.
It seemed like just another dreary play in a string of them for the Ravens’ offense. Broncos outside linebacker Jonathon Cooper whipped around an attempted block by tight end Josh Oliver and smashed an unsuspecting Jackson to the grass.
Team doctors did not rush out to meet a hobbled Jackson. But then, the blue medical tent popped up on the Ravens’ sideline, and Jackson disappeared into it. Moments later, as he walked to the locker room with his head down, recognition of an unwelcome truth swept over M&T Bank Stadium: Forget this game against the Broncos; if No. 8 was gone, so were the Ravens’ hopes for a happy ending to their season.
The news after the game was not as bad as it could have been. Harbaugh said Jackson was not done for the year, though with five games remaining, even a moderate knee injury could keep him out for much of the stretch run.
No team in the NFL revolves around a single player more than the Ravens do around Jackson. He is the conductor of their wildly efficient running game, the magical element that keeps opposing defensive coordinators up at night, the one who keeps teammates believing. No, he had not played well in recent weeks or in the first quarter against Denver. But what are they without him?
Even if Jackson misses multiple weeks, they might win enough games to reach the postseason. They have an excellent defense, a capable backup quarterback in Huntley and a will that never seems to burn out. But the Ravens we saw Sunday, scrounging for field goals against one of the worst teams in the league, might be the Ravens we see for a while. No matchup on what we thought was a favorable schedule is going to be a pushover.
Tyler Huntley can’t be Lamar Jackson, but he has won the faith of his teammates.
Huntley’s toothy grin after he surmounted the terrible pressure of leading an NFL comeback was the same one we saw from him two years ago, when he started turning heads as an undrafted free agent in his first NFL training camp.
“How much pressure?” Harbaugh said. “I don’t know; I never played quarterback in the National Football League, but I have to tell you, it has to be something tangible.”
The man they call “Snoop” doesn’t rattle easily, and that’s part of the reason teammates roll with him so readily. “You can’t replace Lamar Jackson, but I feel like we have a starting quarterback as both our No. 1 quarterback and No. 2 quarterback,” cornerback Marlon Humphrey said. “So I felt pretty good about it.”
Huntley completed 27 of 32 passes, led the Ravens with 41 rushing yards and saved his most poised moments for that decisive drive, pump-faking when he saw a linebacker bite on Kenyan Drake’s first move and floating a 13-yard completion to set up his own game-winning touchdown.
Setting aside the euphoria at the end, we also saw the limitations of the Ravens’ offense with Huntley in place of Jackson. He makes quick reads and throws accurately but rarely looks to attack downfield (5.8 yards per attempt against Denver). He’s quick but not an otherworldly threat on designed runs, so the ground game was less dynamic overall, producing just 103 yards on 28 carries. Huntley has kept the Ravens competitive in every game he’s played over the last two seasons; he’s also 1-3 as a starter.
So let’s not give in to foolish discussions about how the Ravens might be better off with Huntley as their starter. Let’s also give teammates room to sing his praises.
“Things weren’t perfect,” Andrews said. “But for him to be able to come in — especially that last drive — and do what he did, and have the composure that he had, just shows you how good he really is, how much he’s learned. I’m thinking about Lamar but you have to tip your hat to ‘Snoop,’ just how well he played. It’s impressive football.”
The win did not obscure the dire state of the Ravens’ offense.
Harbaugh’s quote about the irrelevance of narratives was understandable given the resilience his team had just displayed. But in the cold light of the film room, he and his staff will not be happy with the offensive inefficiency we saw against the Broncos.
After they sputtered to 13 points against the Carolina Panthers and stalled in the red zone against the Jacksonville Jaguars, the Ravens simply did not move the ball most of the afternoon against the Broncos. Only two of their 11 drives even reached the red zone. Six of the 11 went for 17 yards or fewer. They converted on just three of 13 third downs. Their running backs combined for 43 yards on 14 carries. When they gained a shred of momentum on their first possession of the fourth quarter, offensive coordinator Greg Roman called a trick play that ended with wide receiver James Proche II throwing into triple coverage for an interception.
We’re in for another week of speculation about Roman’s future as fans call for his ouster and rumors percolate of mutual interest between him and Stanford. The Ravens need some kind of jolt on offense, and as much as Roman says the solutions are within reach, we did not see progress against Denver, even with Jackson on the field in the first quarter.
This is not 2012, when the Ravens had a ready replacement, Jim Caldwell, on staff after Harbaugh fired offensive coordinator Cam Cameron with three regular-season games to go. Harbaugh felt the Ravens had stagnated at that point and that Caldwell, who had coached the Indianapolis Colts from 2009 to 2011, would give them a chance to dig out. His risk, unusual for its timing, helped facilitate a Super Bowl victory.
A decade later, it’s far from clear a similar move would create a similar payoff. Roman remains the most qualified short-term candidate to fix the offense he designed. But he’s running out of time to reverse the tide.
The Cincinnati Bengals are coming for the Ravens.
As we looked ahead two weeks ago, it seemed the Ravens were about to have their best chance to put space between themselves and the Bengals. They would face the Jaguars and the Broncos while Cincinnati would travel to Tennessee to face the hard-to-kill Titans and then host the conference-leading Kansas City Chiefs. Could the Ravens come out of this stretch with a three-game lead in the AFC North? It seemed possible.
Well, the Bengals bent reality in a different direction. They showed real poise in putting away the Titans. Then, quarterback Joe Burrow outdueled the best player in the league, Patrick Mahomes, down the stretch in Cincinnati. Whether we’re talking analytics or the eye test, the Bengals (8-4) are finding their form as they seek a second straight divisional and conference crown.
Baltimore Ravens Insider
We’ve already talked about the Ravens’ failings over the last two weeks, and even though they hold a head-to-head tiebreaker over Cincinnati, it’s fair to say these rivals have moved in opposite directions. No longer does an easier schedule feel like protection against an orange-and-black surge, not when the Bengals are beating quality opponents and the Ravens are struggling against poor ones. The time for the Ravens to pull away is gone. They’re holding on by their fingernails.
Ravens at Steelers
Sunday, 1 p.m.
TV: Ch. 13
Radio: 97.9 FM, 101.5 FM, 1090 AM
Line: Ravens by 4 1/2