The Ravens were knocking on the door of the unlikely.
Quarterback Tyler Huntley was in the midst of his best performance of the year. The Ravens had scored two touchdowns in a game for the first time since star Lamar Jackson’s knee injury on December 4. Baltimore, missing its best player and playing the AFC’s hottest team on the road, was about to take a fourth. quarter lead in enemy territory.
But when Huntley, on third-and-goal from the 2-yard line, tried to jump the stack and reach the ball past the end zone plane for a touchdown, the ball came loose. As it slipped away, so did the Ravens’ chances of pulling off a playoff upset against a division rival.
Cincinnati defensive end Sam Hubbard caught the ball in the air and ran it 98 yards for a touchdown, the longest fumble return touchdown in NFL playoff history. Tight end Mark Andrews stalked Hubbard down the field before finally being blocked and collapsing at the 20-yard line. He knelt there for several seconds as Bengals fans cheered and Ravens fans shook their heads in bewilderment.
“It’s basically a 14-point swing,” said Andrews, who had five receptions for 73 yards. “It’s hard.”
Ravens coach John Harbaugh later said that the play was not executed well and that Huntley was supposed to underplay the play, rather than overplay it. Huntley initially thought that he had cleared the goal line. And Cincinnati quarterback Joe Burrow said he doesn’t plan to try it himself in the future.
During the play, which lasted about 12 seconds, Baltimore’s chances of winning dropped from 54% to 13%, according to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats. The Ravens had three more possessions but failed to score, losing 24-17 to end their season after a last-second Hail Mary bounced around the end zone and out of the hands of wide receiver James Proche II.
“I was hoping someone would get sick,” Huntley said, “but it just didn’t happen.”
That fumble, which was also the longest fourth-quarter go-ahead touchdown in NFL postseason history, wiped out what had been a strong Ravens performance. After an interception in the first quarter, the Ravens’ offense settled into an impressive game, the best since Jackson, the team’s star for years, tore a ligament in his left knee six weeks earlier.
Huntley’s fumble overshadowed what had been a productive day for him. He completed 17 of 29 passes for 226 yards and two touchdowns, plus one interception.
“It’s kind of disgusting that that’s going to be the play that everyone will remember,” cornerback Marlon Humphrey said of the fumble.
Running back JK Dobbins also had a good game, and later in the locker room said he wished his number had been called on the fateful goal-line run.
“He never should have been in that situation,” said Dobbins, who finished with four receptions for 43 yards and a touchdown and 62 rushing yards on 13 carries. “I should be the guy. We are going to win the game. I’m tired of it.”
“I thought we played a winning game of football in many, many ways,” coach John Harbaugh said. “He ran the ball well, shot the ball well, played outstanding defense, received the ball. The difference was the two turnovers. Obviously, that hurt us. A really big one, but both led to the score.”
In the first quarter, the Ravens defense was unable to leave the field. They didn’t allow many big plays, but the Bengals marched; Cincinnati had eight first downs in the quarter, while the Ravens ran just five offensive plays.
On the game’s opening drive, the Bengals converted a field goal. On the Ravens’ opening drive, they threw an interception, when Huntley missed on his second pass of the night. Cincinnati then scored a touchdown on Burrow’s throw to wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase, but missed the extra point to take a 9–0 lead early in the second quarter.
The Ravens, however, turned the game around with a steady 17-play, 75-yard drive in the second quarter, capped by Dobbins reaching up to get the nose of the ball over the plane for a touchdown.
Kyle Hamilton, a first-round pick by the Ravens in last year’s NFL draft, then forced a fumble with a well-timed punch on Bengals tight end Hayden Hurst, a first-round pick by the Ravens for the one time. Hamilton fumbled the ball and then corralled it, setting up a 22-yard field goal by Ravens kicker Justin Tucker after the offense was stopped at the 3-yard line. With the kick, Tucker beat Matt Stover as Ravens leading scorer in the playoffs.
The Ravens took a 10-9 halftime lead, but, after a Baltimore punt to open the third quarter, the Bengals scored a touchdown and 2-point conversion to take a 17-10 lead. Baltimore responded with Huntley’s 41-yard touchdown run to a wide Demarcus Robinson, tying the game at 17.
Following a Bengals three-and-out, the Ravens drove 80 yards in eight plays before Huntley’s fumble. On the play, the ball came within 0.6 yards of the end zone, according to NFL Next Gen Stats.
Baltimore had three more possessions in the fourth quarter, but couldn’t find the tying touchdown they needed, eventually getting stopped on fourth down in the final seconds.
Huntley was somber after the game, saying he’ll be thinking about the catastrophic fumble “all offseason.” Other players in the locker room comforted each other or bowed their heads thoughtfully.
“It hurts because you know you played well enough to have a chance,” Ravens guard Kevin Zeitler said. “In the playoffs, it doesn’t matter what you’ve done in the past, what you’ve done all year, you’re on that field and in those three hours you have a chance to move on and we don’t. do it.”
Many had written off the Ravens without Jackson, but their defense played well enough against Cincinnati’s well-oiled offense and their own offense seemed to play well enough as well. But they were doomed by a 98-yard error. With the loss, Baltimore has still won just one playoff game since 2015.
“We were controlling the game, controlling the game, driving up and down the field. But it’s a whole different situation if that doesn’t happen,” Huntley said of the goal-line fumble.
Now, instead of looking forward to a postseason date with the Kansas City Chiefs next week, Ravens fans will enter the offseason with one burning question in mind: What is Lamar Jackson’s future in Baltimore?
Questions linger about the contract status of Jackson, a pending free agent who did not travel with the team to Cincinnati, according to NBC. He and the team could come to a long-term deal, or the Ravens could franchise him, locking him up for next year at roughly $45 million, trade him, or, less likely, let him try out free agency.
Without him on Sunday night, the Ravens nearly pulled off an improbable win. In the end, they fell short.