The sight of Lamar Jackson being carted from the field at FirstEnergy Stadium in Cleveland on Dec. 12 might be the most fitting image of the Ravens’ 2021 season.

The Ravens’ starting quarterback left the game on the first play of the second quarter with an ankle injury, and a furious late rally behind backup Tyler Huntley fell short as the Ravens lost, 24-22, to the Cleveland Browns (7-6) in an AFC North tussle.

The Ravens (8-5) trailed 24-6 at halftime before rallying for two second-half touchdowns, and they had a chance to steal a most improbable win after Justin Tucker executed the first successful onside kick of his career with 1:17 left.

But the Ravens’ last-gasp rally ended when Browns cornerback Denzel Ward stopped Rashod Bateman for a gain of 2 on a fourth-and-6 pass with 56 seconds left.

Huntley finished 27-for-38 for 270 yards, with a couple of huge fourth-down conversions throws during the Ravens second-half rally. He also ran six times for 45 yards, including a couple of juking, zig-zagging runs that looked a lot like Jackson.

“The guys are confident in Tyler,” head coach John Harbaugh said. “He has proven himself now in two different games. We’re confident in all of our players. If we weren’t confident in him, he would not be on this team.”

But Huntley also lost a pair of fumbles, including one that was returned 15 yards for a touchdown by defensive end Myles Garrett for a 24-3 Browns second-quarter lead.

Even before Jackson got hurt, the offense continued to scuffle. The Ravens failed to score a first-quarter touchdown for the seventh consecutive game, and they didn’t register their second first down until the final minute of the first half.

Here are five quick impressions of the game, which splits the season series between the teams:

1. Lamar Jackson’s injury was probably inevitable.

Really, was there any doubt that at some point in this star-crossed season, Lamar Jackson would be the latest player to go down?

Jackson left the game in the first quarter with an ankle injury after he was chased down and hit by Browns linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah as Jackson threw a pass. Jackson did not return, and as Browns romped to a 24-3 lead, it appeared there was little reason for him to.

Yet backup Tyler Huntley, who won at Chicago in his only career start when Jackson was sidelined by illness, led a furious rally that nearly brought the Ravens all the way back.

“Lamar has an ankle sprain,” head coach John Harbaugh said, “so we’ll look at it more tomorrow and see where we’re at.”

Injuries have been the No. 1 storyline this year, with a staggering number of frontline players lost for the season, including All-Pro tackle Ronnie Stanley, All-Pro cornerback Marcus Peters, defensive end Derek Wolfe, safety DeShon Elliott and all three of the top running backs in training camp.

Still, when Pro Bowl cornerback Marlon Humphrey suffered a season-ending torn pec muscle at Pittsburgh last week, it seemed the injuries had finally hit a tipping point. Facing the Browns and their ferocious pass rush, with an offensive line that was without starting right tackle Patrick Mekari (hand), Jackson figured to be under duress, as teams have consistently blitzed the Ravens since the Dolphins had such success with relentless pressure five weeks ago.

If this Ravens season hadn’t hit a critical mass of injuries at Pittsburgh last week, it might have with the sight of Jackson being carted off.

It’s worth noting, though, that so much focus has been on Jackson being subject to greater injury risk as a running quarterback, but he was hurt on a routine pass play.

2. The Browns wasted no time attacking that depleted Ravens secondary.

Marlon Humphrey is sidelined for the season after being hurt at Pittsburgh, joining fellow Pro Bowl cornerback Marcus Peters on the bench. Jimmy Smith, who has dealt with a host of injuries, was back in Baltimore for the birth of his child and missed this game.

The Ravens unveiled a secondary headlined by Anthony Averett, Tavon Young and Chris Westry, who was making just his second career start. Kevon Seymour and practice squad callup Robert Jackson were the only other Ravens cornerbacks in uniform.

The Browns predictably attacked the short-handed group immediately, and it paid early dividends, thanks in part to a couple of questionable penalties. Ravens cornerbacks were flagged four times in the first half, including two pass interference calls — one each on Averett and Westry — that set up the Browns first field goal. Westry and Tavon Young later drew penalties on the Browns’ first touchdown drive.

Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield (22-for-32, 190 yards) threw a pair of first-half touchdown passes as the Browns opened up a 17-0 lead. But he was also intercepted by Averett — the first interception by the Ravens in six games — which set up the first of three field goals by Justin Tucker.

The secondary held up well in the second half as the Browns were held scoreless.

“We didn’t really change much of anything,” head coach John Harbaugh said. “We didn’t get the pass interference penalties that we had in the first half. That is basically the biggest difference.”

Asked about penalties, Harbaugh said, “I mean, you guys saw the game, right? Write what you saw. You want to get a quote from me about it, and then I get fined or whatever.”

Don’t look now, but Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers are coming to M&T Bank Stadium next week, and the following week, the Ravens have to go to Cincinnati, where Joe Burrow and wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase await. They will also see the Los Angeles Rams and standout wide receiver Cooper Kupp, then Ben Roethlisberger, Diontaie Johnson, Chase Claypool and the Pittsburgh Steelers come to M&T Bank Stadium for the regular-season finale.

3. Rashod Bateman showed why he needs to be involved more often.

With the Ravens trailing 24-9, Tyler Huntley lofted a pass down the left sideline that rookie Rashod Bateman hauled in for what appeared to be a 37-yard touchdown. He was marked down at the 1, and Latavius Murray powered through for a score on the next play.

Later in the fourth quarter, with the Ravens facing fourth-and-6, Huntley found Bateman again down the left sideline for a contested catch and a gain of 30. Huntley connected with Mark Andrews (team-high 11 catches for 115 yards) for an 8-yard touchdown on the next play, and Justin Tucker’s extra-point kick cut the Browns lead to 24-22.

Huntley also threaded a quick slant to Bateman on fourth-and-6 on what proved to be the Ravens’ final play. Browns cornerback Denzel Ward stepped up and stopped Bateman cold after he caught the ball at the Ravens’ 47-yard line, which was about 4 yards short of the line to gain.

“It was just a free rusher,” Huntley said. “I went to my hot read. It just happened that (Ward) made a great play.”

Still, it was good to see offensive coordinator Greg Roman get reacquainted with the Ravens’ top draft pick this spring. At Pittsburgh last week, Bateman had no catches and was targeted just once in 33 offensive snaps. In this game, Bateman set career highs with seven catches for 103 yards.

Roman and the quarterbacks will talk about game plans, and taking what the defense gives you, but there’s no question that the Ravens’ top draft pick has to be involved for this offense to hit its stride. This was an encouraging step in that direction.

4. John Harbaugh has no reservations about his early two-point call.

Trailing by 15 midway through the fourth quarter, the Ravens knew they were going to need a two-point conversion sooner or later to win or to extend the game. After Latavius Murray barreled in for a 1-yard touchdown, cutting the Browns lead to 24-15, Harbaugh called for a two-point play with 8:56 left in regulation.

Tyler Huntley’s conversion attempt was picked off by Grant Delpit, leaving the Ravens still trailing by two scores behind with 8:56 left.

It’s a decision that merits scrutiny, because if Justin Tucker kicks the conversion, which almost certainly would have been successful, the Ravens would have trailed by just one score (plus a successful two-point play). By failing on the first two-point try, the Ravens needed at least two more scoring possessions to win the game, and ultimately, they came up one short.

Still, Harbaugh called it a “nondecision.”

“You do it at that point in time because you’re going to have to win a two-point conversion” at some point, Harbaugh explained. “So you understand if you get it, or don’t get it, early, where you’re at going from there, how many possessions you’re going to need, and what you’re going to have to do.

“If you wait until the last two-point conversion and don’t get it, the game’s over. You’ve lost. So you try it early. [If we get it], we’re in a seven-point game, we know where we stand. We don’t get it, we know we’re in a nine-point game and we need two possessions.”

Indeed, Tucker could have kicked the PAT to cut the Browns lead to 24-16, the Ravens could have scored, and then missed the ensuing two-point try and lost 24-22, which was precisely the final margin.

It’s impossible to know how the final sequence would have played out if Tucker had kicked the earlier PAT; do the Browns play as passively on defense if they are up by just one score? Are they so content to give up 8, 10 yards in the middle of the field?

Maybe the more important issue is that in this game, and last week at Pittsburgh, the Ravens needed to successfully execute a two-point play and were unable to do so.

5. The AFC North is a logjam again, and it will be a wild final month.

Ravens players will stress that, for all their injuries this year, all their goals are still there for the taking. Indeed, after the Cincinnati Bengals (7-6) lost at home to the San Francisco 49ers this week, 26-23, the Ravens (8-5) and their taped-together roster remain atop the AFC North by a game over the Bengals and Browns. Pittsburgh remains in striking distance at 6-6-1.

It’s an improbable position for the Ravens, with Lamar Jackson hurting, and with Marlon Humphrey joining Marcus Peters, Ronnie Stanley, J.K. Dobbins, Gus Edwards, DeShon Elliott, Derek Wolfe and others on the sideline for the duration of the year.

The Ravens face one of the league’s toughest schedules over the final month of the season, with games against Green Bay, Cincinnati, the Los Angeles Rams and Pittsburgh. To win the division, the Ravens probably will need to beat the Bengals on Dec. 26. Cincinnati thumped the Ravens, 41-17, at M&T Bank Stadium in October, and the Ravens won’t want to be on the wrong side of the season-sweep, head-to-head tiebreaker.

On the bright side, every other team in the AFC North has shown its flaws, nine wins just might be enough to win the division, and the Ravens already have eight in the bank.

That’s a credit to coach John Harbaugh and the players, including Huntley, Westry, Murray and all the rest of those ‘Next Men Up.’

This story has been updated with more quotes since its original publication.

Photo Credit: Kenya Allen/PressBox

Bo Smolka

See all posts by Bo Smolka. Follow Bo Smolka on Twitter at @bsmolka