Lamar Jackson has already produced so many highlight-reel plays in his brief, MVP career that it’s hard to predict how the next one will come, but it’s safe to say no others will start in the locker room, which is exactly what happened on the defining play of the Ravens’ instant-classic, 47-42 win against the Cleveland Browns Dec. 14.
Jackson missed much of the fourth quarter receiving treatment for cramps in his arm and leg and said he was stretching in the locker room when he saw his backup, Trace McSorley, go down with a leg injury.
With the Ravens trailing 35-34 and facing fourth-and-five from the Browns 44-yard line, with wide receiver Willie Snead hurriedly taking snaps as an emergency quarterback, and with kicker Justin Tucker lobbying for a chance to try to kick a go-ahead field goal of 60-plus yards, Jackson raced back from the locker room, grabbed his helmet and went into the huddle as the two-minute warning ended.
“When I saw [McSorley] go down … I was like, ‘Hey, what’s about to happen,'” safety Chuck Clark said. “I saw different guys over there getting ready to go in there and get warmed up … But seeing LJ run back out there, it was a sigh of relief.”
With the Ravens’ playoff chances very much hanging in the balance, Jackson rolled to his right and lofted a pass to a wide-open Marquise Brown, who raced to a 44-yard touchdown for a stunning go-ahead score — which, in this crazy game, proved to be just the first of four scores in the final two minutes.
Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield shredded an injury-ravaged Ravens defense en route to a four-play, 75-yard touchdown drive that tied the game at 42 with 1:02 left, and that gave Jackson and the Ravens just enough time to set up Justin Tucker, who drilled a 55-yard game-winning field goal with two seconds left.
The Ravens (8-5) added a safety as time expired when the Browns’ final lateral-filled, desperation play went backward and right out of the end zone.
Here are five quick impressions of the win, which should immediately make any short list of most memorable games in franchise history:
1. This is where legends are made.
This game will be talked about as long as the Ravens exist.
The sight of Lamar Jackson rushing through a stadium tunnel to return to the field with two minutes left, the Ravens trailing 35-34, facing fourth-and-5 with their playoff hopes largely on the line, provided about as compelling live theater as you can ask for.
Until, of course, he rolled to his right and found Marquise Brown behind the Browns’ defense for a 44-yard, are-you-kidding-me? touchdown pass and a 42-35 lead.
And he still wasn’t done. Because the Browns and Baker Mayfield, who went toe to toe with the Ravens like heavyweight fighters for 15 rounds, hit Kareem Hunt for a game-tying touchdown just 47 seconds later, but that gave Jackson enough time to engineer one more drive.
Known far more for his ability to win with his legs, Jackson delivered four straight completions on the Ravens’ final drive, putting them in position for Justin Tucker to drill a 55-yard field goal with two seconds left for the win.
Earlier in the game, Jackson had already given the Browns and the national “Monday Night Football” audience a show with a pair of touchdown runs en route to a 124-yard rushing performance. But his play in the final two minutes, leading to 10 points and a season-saving win, cemented this as one of the most remarkable nights in franchise history.
“If you wrote a movie about this, people wouldn’t believe it,” head coach John Harbaugh said. “They would say it could never happen. Reality is stranger than fiction or whatever that saying is. That’s kind of what it is here. It’s crazy.”
2. The Ravens’ cornerback group is in tatters.
The Ravens began this season with perhaps the deepest, most talented cornerback group in the NFL. Yet here they were, in the final minute of the most important game of the season, with utility/special teams ace Anthony Levine Sr. lining up as the nickel back in his first cornerback snaps of the season.
This came after Jimmy Smith went down with a shoulder injury and his backup, Davontae Harris, had also left shaken up. Anthony Averett had been deemed a game day inactive, and Tramon Williams had already been ruled out with a thigh injury. Compounding the problems, Marcus Peters briefly left with a calf injury and at one point returned without the medical staff even realizing it.
“Marcus Peters, he went out there, the trainers didn’t even tell him it was OK to run out there,” Harbaugh said. “… I see him running out there and I say, ‘Is Marcus cleared?’ Our trainer [Ron Medlin] says, ‘Is Marcus out there?’ I was like, ‘Yes, he just ran out.’ And then he blitzed and almost got a sack.”
“We had so many guys going down on defense,” Harbaugh added, “just trying to get 11 guys on the field was a challenge.”
The Ravens’ cornerback group already has four players on injured reserve: Tavon Young, Iman Marshall, Terrell Bonds and Khalil Dorsey, and Harris and Williams were midseason acquisitions via the waiver wire just to try to plug some holes.
The Ravens can breathe a little easier after squeaking out this win, but it is alarming how short-handed and banged up they are at a position that was an embarrassment of riches at the start of the season.
3. Tyus Bowser has evolved into a versatile linebacker.
The Ravens’ fourth-year linebacker had one of the critical plays of the game as he dropped into coverage and grabbed a one-handed interception of Baker Mayfield deep in Browns territory. Bowser fell to the ground, hopped up and returned it to the 1-yard line, setting up a quick touchdown by J.K. Dobbins for a 34-20 lead.
Bowser is set to be a free agent after the season, and outside linebackers such as Bowser usually make their money based on their sack totals. Bowser has just two sacks this season, but he now is tied for the team lead with three interceptions — all in the past four weeks — and has evolved into a more complete linebacker. That might not lead to the huge paycheck that the big pass rushers earn, but he is working himself into a second contract and, more importantly, has become a significant part of the Ravens’ pass defense.
“You’ve seen people dropping balls in the cold, and he came up with it one-handed,” linebacker Matthew Judon said. “… Respect him. He can rush, and he can cover. He does both, and he’s an extremely hard worker.”
Bowser, who at one point was a two-sport athlete at the University of Houston before giving up basketball to focus on football, has the athleticism to make plays in space as he did in this game.
“I look at myself as just a football player, man,” Bowser said. “Whatever I have to do, whether that is dropping in coverage or rushing, I’m just there to do it.”
4. Justin Tucker is the best in the league at what he does.
Harbaugh said Tucker was lobbying for a go-ahead field goal try on fourth down after McSorley had been hurt, and really, it was probably a reasonable idea to send Tucker out for what would have been about a 62-yard try if the only alternative was throwing a wide receiver (Willie Snead) in as an emergency quarterback on fourth-and-5.
Of course, Lamar Jackson returned in legendary fashion to throw a go-ahead touchdown pass, and then Jackson completed four straight passes to set up Tucker for the 55-yard game-winner.
It’s hard to overstate how much of an advantage the Ravens have with Tucker every time they take the field, but it became apparent again as the Browns’ Cody Parkey missed an extra-point kick and a 39-yard field goal. (Tucker, however, also missed an extra-point when it was blocked.)
Harbaugh said with the game tied in the closing seconds, he would have trotted Tucker out from “anything that was within a chance.”
To Jackson’s credit, he quickly got Tucker in position for a 55-yard kick, but even that, on this night, was far from automatic. For anyone, Harbaugh said, but Tucker.
“To make that kick,” Harbaugh said, “with the crosswind on that field, in December, in the open end, in the ‘Dawg Pound’ end, [for] most kickers, that’s unmakeable. The only kicker that I know of that you’d feel confident in making that would be Justin Tucker.”
5. This epic win greatly enhances the Ravens’ playoff hopes.
At 8-5 in a crowded, muddled AFC playoff picture, the Ravens can ill afford a letdown, but this instant classic greatly enhances the Ravens’ playoff hopes. The Ravens’ final three opponents — Jacksonville, NY Giants and Cincinnati — have a combined record of 8-31-1, though the Giants are very much alive in the NFC East, since some team is required to earn a playoff bid.
The win gives the Ravens a season sweep against the Browns, which could factor in playoff seeding, and puts them on a path for 11 wins, which should be good enough to get in. Earlier this week the Ravens were preaching a “win or go home” mentality, and while a loss to Cleveland technically wouldn’t have scuttled the Ravens’ postseason hopes, they would have been greatly damaged.
Instead, their playoff hopes got a major boost after a win for the ages.
Photo Credit: Kenya Allen/PressBox