It happened in a flash, so quickly the camera couldn’t keep up. Kyle Hamilton’s batted pass and interception looked more like ballet than football.
The second-year safety literally slowed to a saunter as he crossed into the end zone on the second snap Sunday. So often this season, the Ravens have made things look easy. It seemed like another comfortable win was dialed in early as they vaulted to a 14-0 lead.
“It was a good start to the game,” a wistful Hamilton said later in a dreary Ravens locker room, “but it feels like a long time ago now.”
We should have known. Wins in the AFC North are rarely easy, more often than not dragging out into chest-pounding brawls. And, although a 33-31 defeat to Cleveland, in which the Ravens blew a two-score lead in less than a minute, may resemble their two other losses in certain ways, it definitely isn’t the same.
How they lost, and who they lost along the way, is the first significant dent in Baltimore’s Super Bowl campaign.
Given the double-digit leads, Cleveland’s many mistakes and penalties, and how well they’ve played at other points in this season, the Ravens should have prevailed. But make no mistake: The Browns earned it in no small part by bullying Baltimore, a team that prides itself on physicality and toughness.
The Ravens’ four-game win streak had them flying high — and the fan base with them. Blowouts against Detroit and Seattle felt as easy as Hamilton walking a pick six into the end zone. Three and a half hours later, they were stewing over defeat as if the school bully had pushed them in mud.
“They’re a good defensive front, and there’s a lot of mistakes we made,” said Patrick Mekari, one of the replacement tackles who has been a bright spot in games besides this one. “We gotta just play harder for longer.”
Mekari and his compatriots often looked overwhelmed. The Ravens had 106 net rushing yards, a season low, and the Browns’ defensive line led by Myles Garrett was incredibly disruptive to the passing game, taking away almost all long-developing plays.
We’ve become accustomed to seeing Lamar Jackson cool in the pocket. Against Cleveland, he was frantic, making decisions like a man well out of his comfort zone. He threw two interceptions, just one fewer than he’d thrown in the previous nine games combined, and while one of them was batted, another he admitted simply didn’t have enough zip. He was rescued from a third pick by a Browns penalty.
Jackson acknowledged that the offense never got in rhythm — the QB who led the league in completion percentage was just 13-for-23.
“We had glimpses of it, but we were on the sidelines so long,” Jackson said. “It was cold. Those guys were trying to keep us off the field, but it’s football.”
Guess what: It’s also going to be cold in January, the time of year when questions about this team get the loudest.
There was no solace on the other side of the ball. The Ravens gave up a season-high 178 rushing yards, including 4.0 average yards after contact, according to TruMedia. Deshaun Watson, who has looked less than stellar since his arrival in Cleveland, had vintage elusiveness as the Ravens struggled to hold him in the pocket.
Which team was missing its starting tackles? Technically both, by the end. But, after a nightmarish start in which Watson was 1-for-9, the Browns’ front unit got rhythm, particularly in the run game.
Baltimore’s undersize linebackers have so often been a strength of this defense, given their speed in pass coverage. But the linebackers and secondary struggled to put a cap on big-bodied Browns playmakers David Njoku and Jerome Ford, who pounded through broken tackles. Roquan Smith racked up 21 total tackles, but as a unit the Ravens looked unprepared for the wallop Cleveland packed.
The six-play drive in the fourth quarter with a 10-yard TD to Elijah Moore underscored that the Ravens’ defense had run out of steam, a near-unthinkable premise given how rock-solid it has been.
“It’s very tough,” outside linebacker Jadeveon Clowney said. “When your offense gives you 30 points, you’re supposed to win this game.”
The list of on-field failures is already substantial, especially considering the Browns gifted a pick six and a muffed punt by former Raven James Proche that led to a score. But that’s before accounting for injuries that added to the cost of Sunday’s game.
Top corner Marlon Humphrey hit the turf after an apparent noncontact ankle injury in the third quarter, a frightening omen for any athlete. Left tackle Ronnie Stanley had to leave in the fourth quarter after a Browns defender rolled into his legs. He walked off the field but not before pounding the turf in obvious pain.
The Ravens have withstood lots of injuries, including to Humphrey and Stanley. Coach John Harbaugh had no updates on the severity of their injuries after the game. But if either or both will miss significant time, it calls the legitimacy of the Ravens’ playoff ambitions into question.
Injuries have seemingly been a death knell to their hopes for the last few seasons. After the Ravens’ roughest loss yet, Humphrey and Stanley are as needed as ever to get back on track.
Baltimore’s losses to Indianapolis and Pittsburgh were head scratchers. Not this one. They were outplayed in a manner that shows how much tougher and resilient they need to be.
Even the players understood, among their losses, this one stood apart from the others. Against the best opponents this season, the Ravens have often been their best. Not Sunday.
“This game meant a lot,” running back Gus Edwards said, “and we didn’t play how we were supposed to play.”