BALTIMORE — In the fourth quarter of a tight game laden with playoff implications, both the Ravens and the Los Angeles Rams began a series of downs inside the opposing 10-yard line. The Ravens were held to a field goal after a disastrous sequence that included a critical delay of game penalty, and the Rams converted theirs into a 7-yard touchdown pass from Matthew Stafford to Odell Beckham Jr.

That throw to Beckham at the pylon at the front right corner of the end zone with 57 seconds left proved to be the difference as the Rams (12-4) rallied for a 20-19 win at M&T Bank Stadium Jan. 2. The winning score came one play after Stafford and Beckham converted a fourth-and-5 play to keep the Rams alive.

The loss is the fifth in a row for the Ravens (8-8), who continue to limp toward the postseason with a roster in tatters and their fading playoff hopes on life support. Four of those five losses have been by two points or less.

Playing the third consecutive game without starting quarterback Lamar Jackson (ankle), the Ravens jumped to a 10-0 behind backup quarterback Tyler Huntley and never trailed until Beckham’s go-ahead touchdown in the final minute of the game.

For the most part, Huntley operated with poise in his third career start. He finished 20-for-32 for 197 yards passing and ran six times for 54 yards. But he did have a big interception late in the first half that set up the Rams’ first score, and the sequence near the Rams’ end zone in the fourth quarter proved costly.

After facing second-and-goal from the Rams’ 2-yard line, the Ravens had to settle for a 34-yard field goal by Justin Tucker for a 19-14 lead with 4:30 left.

That margin proved to be not quite enough for a threadbare Ravens defense that competed hard all day but could not stop a high-powered Rams offense led by Stafford, Beckham and Cooper Kupp (6 catches, 95 yards) one final time.

The loss spoiled a record-setting day for Mark Andrews, who led the Ravens with 89 receiving yards on six catches. In doing so, Andrews broke the franchise single-season receiving yardage record (1,201) set by by Michael Jackson in the team’s inaugural season in 1996. With one game remaining, Andrews has 1,276.

Here are five quick impressions of the game, which gives the Ravens their first five-game losing streak in John Harbaugh’s 14-year tenure:

1. The Ravens’ goal-to-go sequence proved to be disastrous.

After being hurt by sloppiness and turnovers early, the Rams found their stride in the second half, and Sony Michel’s 1-yard touchdown run cut the Ravens lead to 16-14 early in the fourth quarter. The Ravens needed an answer, and they put together one of their most impressive drives of the season, especially impressive given that the Ravens were without starting center Bradley Bozeman, a late scratch because of illness, and without left guard Ben Powers, who missed his third straight game with a foot injury.

With Trystan Colon at center and rookie Ben Cleveland at left guard, the Ravens pounded away at a Rams defensive front anchored by All-Pro Aaron Donald. Devonta Freeman broke loose for a gain of 33, and he and Latavius Murray found success between the tackles for 5 and 6 yards at a time.

The Ravens moved effortlessly to the Rams’ 5-yard line, and on first-and-goal, Murray slashed to the 2. On second down, Murray was stuffed for a 2-yard loss, the first negative play of the drive, setting up third-and-goal from the 4.

The Ravens failed to snap the ball in time and were called for delay of game, a call that Huntley clearly disagreed with.

“I just think they shorthanded us right there,” Huntley said. “I was looking at the clock. I called for it with like one second left, the ball came, I saw it touch zero.”

Regardless, the Ravens were backed up to the 9, and Huntley was subsequently sacked by Donald and Leonard Floyd, forcing the Ravens to settle for a field goal.

“I knew that drive … with that field goal, I knew that was big,” tight end Mark Andrews said, who called it “super frustrating” that long drives ended with field goals instead of touchdowns.

“We just have to find ways to score points, that’s about it,” he said.

2. It’s a different game when you can create turnovers.

The Ravens have struggled to create turnovers all season. They went five games in a row without an interception, and they entered Week 17 with 11 takeaways, the second-fewest in the league. Turnovers not only can directly lead to points, but they can also give the offense a short field, give the defense a breather and generate emotion in a game that thrives on it.

Against the Rams, the Ravens saw what they’ve been missing all season.

Chuck Clark stepped in front of a quick slant by Matthew Stafford and returned it 17 yards for a touchdown for the game’s first score and the Ravens’ first defensive touchdown all season. On the Rams’ next possession, Clark went high to make a leaping interception on a deep throw intended for Odell Beckham Jr., giving Clark the first multi-interception game of his career.

“It felt good,” Clark said of his first career interception return touchdown, “but I mean, it doesn’t mean anything if we can’t do what we’ve got to do as a team.”

Then in the third quarter, Tyus Bowser sacked Stafford and forced a fumble that was recovered by Justin Houston at the Ravens’ 20-yard line, almost certainly costing the Rams points.

Given how short-handed the Ravens were on defense, without three of their projected four starting defensive backs and without rookie outside linebacker Odafe Oweh, who missed his first game with a foot injury, the Ravens had to hope for a couple of game-changing plays, and they got them.

3. Tyler Huntley’s interception woke up the Rams.

Kickoff had been switched from 4:25 to 1 p.m., and for most of the first half, it appeared the Rams (12-4) did not get the memo. One of the NFC’s top teams looked out of rhythm with turnovers, dropped passes and even a scuffle in their own huddle between cornerback Jalen Ramsey and safety Taylor Rapp.

When the Ravens took over possession with two minutes left in the half, they led 10-0 and it appeared they would be sending the Rams to the locker room scoreless. But then on first down from the Ravens’ 28, Huntley aired one out down the right sideline intended for Marquise Brown, but Brown clearly expected something else. Brown broke inside, and the ball floated into the arms of Rams safety Jordan Fuller, who was all alone. Fuller returned the interception 34 yards. Three plays later Matthew Stafford hit Cooper Kupp for an 18-yard touchdown and it was game on.

“It was just a miscommunication,” Huntley said. “I wish I could have that one back.”

To Huntley’s credit, he immediately rebounded by driving the Ravens 51 yards in 53 seconds to set up a 46-yard field goal by Justin Tucker for a 13-7 halftime lead.

But after sleepwalking for most of the first half, the Rams needed a spark, and Huntley’s errant throw was it.

“I thought one of the biggest plays of the game was the interception at the end of the first half,” Rams head coach Sean McVay said.

4. The Ravens’ pass rush needs to be a top offseason priority … again.

As Matthew Stafford dropped back to throw, he frequently had a well-protected pocket and time to go through his progressions, which is all he needed with a receiver group led by Cooper Kupp and Odell Beckham Jr.

Stafford was sacked once — by Tyus Bowser, who forced a turnover on the play — and he was hit four times, but he was able to stay comfortably on his spot most of the time.

Tyler Huntley was often flushed from the pocket and under duress, and it was somewhat fitting that he was sacked on the huge third-down play that preceded the Ravens’ final field goal.

It was indeed a study in contrasts watching the two quarterbacks, and to a large extent that should have been expected. The Rams feature a ferocious front seven, the Ravens’ offensive line has been suspect all season and was missing two starters, and the Ravens were starting their backup quarterback. The Ravens’ defense, meanwhile, has struggled to get to the quarterback all year and was without rookie edge rusher Odafe Oweh, second on the team with five sacks.

It’s one thing when Pro Bowl corners Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters are on the outside in coverage, but quite another when reserves such as Kevon Seymour, pressed into action by the rash of injuries in the secondary, are asked to cover for extended periods because the opposing quarterback has extended time to survey the field. (Jimmy Smith, incidentally, in what could be his penultimate Ravens game, finished with four tackles, matching his season high.)

The Ravens can’t expect to grab the next Aaron Donald in the upcoming draft, but watching Ravens opponents, it’s easy to see how disruptive a consistent pass rush can be, and how that has been lacking in Baltimore.

5. The Ravens have to beat the Steelers and hope.

To John Harbaugh’s credit, in his 14 years in Baltimore, his Ravens teams have hardly ever played meaningless games at the end of the season. The team is in the playoff picture just about every year. That’s the case again as they prepare to host their archrivals, the Pittsburgh Steelers on Jan. 9 in the regular-season finale, but they also know that they no longer control their own destiny.

The Cincinnati Bengals clinched the AFC North title by virtue of their 34-31 win against the Kansas City Chiefs, and the Ravens for the moment are on the outside looking in on the seven-team AFC playoff field.

The Ravens surely won’t need any motivation to get up for facing the Steelers at home — in what could be Ben Roethlisberger’s final game — but they will need to win that game and get help if they want to make the postseason for the fourth straight year.

It has been a wild, unpredictable ride to this point, with three overtime games and five others decided by two points or less. The Ravens have endured a remarkable rash of injuries and yet another COVID outbreak, and they deserve credit for competing with one of the best teams in the NFC with a depleted roster basically held together with duct tape.

Now, it becomes a one game season, along with some hope.

“You’re only as good as your last game,” linebacker Tyus Bowser said, “so we need to find a way to win. Simple as that.”

Photo Credit: Kenya Allen/PressBox

Bo Smolka

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