The Ravens’ team website showed video of the Ravens’ quarterbacks jogging out of the tunnel before the game at Cincinnati’s Paul Brown Stadium. “QBs take the field!! ” read the tweet, with Kenji Bahar on the left and Josh Johnson on the right.
No, this wasn’t the final preseason game in August. This was Week 16 of the NFL regular season, with the AFC North division lead hanging in the balance, but that scene said as much as any about the state of the Ravens’ roster entering this pivotal matchup.
With quarterbacks Lamar Jackson (ankle) and Tyler Huntley (COVID) sidelined, with nine other players from the 53-man roster on the reserve/COVID-19 list, and with the Ravens down to practice squad players at cornerback, the Bengals (9-6) predictably rolled over the Ravens, 41-21, on Dec. 26 to take command of the AFC North race.
Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow finished 37 for 46 for 525 yards, a single-game record for a Ravens opponent.
Johnson, who was signed by the Ravens less than two weeks ago, was improbably thrust into a starting role when Jackson (ankle) was ruled out for the second straight week and Huntley was placed on the league’s reserve/COVID-19 list the day before the game.
That marked the eighth day in the past nine that at least one Ravens player landed on the COVID list, and it gave this game a flavor similar to the “Covid Bowl” played on a Wednesday afternoon in Pittsburgh last year, with the Ravens fielding a roster heavily populated with practice-squad callups.
“I thought our guys fought hard and did the best they could under the circumstances,” head coach John Harbaugh said. “That’s what you ask for. That’s all you can ask for.”
Johnson, making his ninth career start and his first since 2018 over an itinerant 14-year NFL career, bolted out of the gate, perhaps catching the Bengals by surprise with an up-tempo drive that ended with a 4-yard touchdown pass to Rashod Bateman for an early 7-3 Ravens lead.
It marked just the second opening-drive touchdown all season for the Ravens, and was Bateman’s first touchdown as a pro.
But Johnson and the Ravens (8-7) couldn’t keep pace with a Bengals offense that shredded the Ravens’ defense all day and scored on all five of its first-half possessions en route to a 31-14 lead.
Here are five quick impressions of the game, which gives the Ravens a four-game losing streak for just the second time in Harbaugh’s tenure:
1. These are not your father’s “Bungles.”
The Bengals have been an AFC North punching bag for a while, with five straight losing seasons and a lot of lopsided losses en route. They haven’t won a playoff game since January 1991 — nearly six years before current quarterback Joe Burrow was born.
But this group is not the “Bungles” of old. They have the talent to be a mainstay in this division for the foreseeable future with a franchise quarterback in Burrow and a stable of young, talented skill position players.
And, as this game proved, they aren’t afraid to add a little sauce to this rivalry.
Already leading by 20 with two minutes left, Burrow lofted a bomb to Joe Mixon for 52 yards, putting him over 500 passing yards for the game and sticking one more dagger into the Ravens on what appeared to be a play called with purpose.
Asked after the game about that play, Harbaugh said, “They call their plays. We call our plays.”
Maybe the Bengals remember all too well getting drubbed by the Ravens last year by a combined score of 65-6. Ravens coaches were miffed that the Bengals kicked a last-minute field goal in one of those games to avoid a shutout, and surely the Bengals remember the Ravens romping to 404 rushing yards in a 38-3 win at Cincinnati last year.
Maybe the Bengals were miffed that Lamar Jackson, and not Burrow, was selected to the Pro Bowl, or that Ravens defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale earlier this week sounded as if he wasn’t ready to put Burrow in Aaron Rodgers’ company yet. (“Aaron Rodgers is a Hall of Fame quarterback, and I don’t think we’re ready to buy a gold jacket for Joe yet,” Martindale had said).
Regardless, the Bengals clearly wanted to make a statement that the AFC North runs through Cincinnati, and they intend to keep it that way.
2. Josh Johnson played better than anyone could have reasonably expected.
Josh Johnson hasn’t even been with the Ravens for two weeks, and he found out just a day earlier that he would be making his first start in three seasons.
He came out firing, marching the Ravens to just their second opening-drive touchdown all season. His passes had zip, he had the offense moving in rhythm and he looked as composed as could be expected given the situation.
When Johnson fired a quick slant to Rashod Bateman for a 4-yard touchdown and an early 7-3 lead, it offered hope that the Ravens could somehow overcome their litany of issues to take down the Bengals.
Johnson finished 28-for-40 for 304 yards, with two touchdowns and one interception, and a passer rating of 98.3. He did fumble twice, and one of those, on a mishandled snap on third-and-1 as the second quarter began, seemed to sap the Ravens of their early energy. They punted, and two plays later Burrow found Tyler Boyd all alone for a 68-yard touchdown and a 17-7 lead.
The Ravens have two games left, and Jackson’s ankle and Huntley’s health will remain question marks this week. Johnson, who at age 35 is the Ravens’ second-oldest player, is not in the team’s long-term plans, but he deserves a lot of credit for competing and giving his team a chance.
“You’ve got to tip your hat to him,” tight end Mark Andrews said. “I told him, ‘You’ve got to stand on what you did today, because that was pretty dang impressive.’ “
3. This just wasn’t a fair fight for the Ravens’ secondary.
The Bengals fielded a multitalented passing attack led by quarterback Joe Burrow and dynamic receivers Ja’Marr Chase, Tee Higgins and well-known Ravens killer Tyler Boyd. Plus tight end C.J. Uzomah, who scored two touchdowns in a 41-17 Bengals rout of the Ravens in October.
Dealing with that group, which was playing confidently and at home, figured to be a tough task even if the Ravens had all their players. Heck, Burrow had thrown for 416 yards in that win at Baltimore in October, and that was when Pro Bowl cornerback Marlon Humphrey was healthy.
The Ravens didn’t have Humphrey in this game, nor Marcus Peters (out for the year), nor Jimmy Smith nor Chris Westry (both on the reserve/COVID-19 list), and they lost Anthony Averett early in the game with a rib injury. Tavon Young also left the game.
With all those players sidelined — essentially the top six cornerbacks on Sept. 1 — the Ravens had to trot out a cornerback group featuring Kevon Seymour, Daryl Worley and Robert Jackson. Worley has 54 career starts since 2016, but he joined the Ravens’ practice squad less than a week ago.
Burrow attacked repeatedly and relentlessly, finding success at every level against the Ravens’ short-handed secondary. Higgins finished with 12 catches for 194 yards and two touchdowns. Chase, who lit up the Ravens for 201 yards in the October matchup, totaled 125 this time, on seven catches. Boyd had 85, including a 68-yard catch-and-run touchdown.
This was basically matchup of an elite quarterback and top-tier wide receiver talent against fifth-string cornerbacks. The talent disparity was evident from the start.
4. Mark Andrews makes any quarterback better.
Andrews topped 100 receiving yards in his third consecutive game — a career first — and he did it with three different starting quarterbacks. In this game, Andrews finished with eight catches for 125 yards, and his 18-yard touchdown catch closed the Bengals lead to 34-21 early in the fourth quarter.
Playing primarily with backup quarterbacks for the past three games, Andrews has totaled 29 catches for 376 yards and four touchdowns. He is bordering on unstoppable.
With two games left, Andrews is enjoying a season virtually unparalleled in Ravens history.
Andrews needs just 15 receiving yards to break the Ravens all-time single-season record of 1,201, set by Michael Jackson in the team’s inaugural season in 1996. Andrews also needs 11 catches to break Derrick Mason’s franchise single-season record of 103.
Andrews this past week was deservedly selected to his second Pro Bowl, and the Ravens were wise to get a long-term contract extension done this season.
As long as No. 89 is on the field, whomever the Ravens trot out at quarterback has a chance for success.
“Mark Andrews is a monster,” Johnson said.
5. The Ravens’ playoff hopes are on life support.
The Ravens still have a chance to win the AFC North, but for that to happen, they will need to beat the Los Angeles Rams and the Pittsburgh Steelers, and have Cincinnati lose its final two games, to the Kansas City Chiefs and the Cleveland Browns. All four outcomes are possible, but the Ravens at this point don’t even know who will be suiting up for that Rams game next week.
Will Lamar Jackson be back, and can he still be effective on a gimpy ankle after missing two games? How many of the players sidelined on the reserve/COVID-19 list will be back, and will others be joining them this week?
Each injury, or COVID absence, has veered the Ravens closer and closer to the tipping point, but entering Week 17, they still have a winning record and a chance to win the division or slip into one of the final wild-card spots in what has been a thoroughly fuzzy AFC playoff picture. Head coach John Harbaugh and his band of fighters deserve a lot of credit for that.
Harbaugh doesn’t like to attach labels to games, but he and his players know that that are completely in must-win territory now. Any margin for error is gone.
“This whole year has been just one thing after another,” tight end Mark Andrews said. “But … one thing that remains true is that we continue to fight.”
“Two games left,” he said. “Give it all we have.”
Photo Credit: Kenya Allen/PressBox