CINCINNATI — Tyler Huntley thought he had it. He was sure of it as he raised his hands amid the din of Paycor Stadium, signaling to the officials that the ball had broken the goal line, that the Ravens deserved to be ahead, that a playoff upset was in the offing. There was no way that the Cincinnati Bengals had just run a fumble back 98 yards for a game-turning touchdown, he pleaded, because he’d already scored.

The Ravens’ 2022 season ended Sunday night in maybe the only way this season could’ve ever ended: with another lesson learned on the fragility of football and the peril of expectations. The sixth-seeded Ravens’ 24-17 loss to the third-seeded Bengals in the AFC wild-card round added one final, cruel layer of “What if?” to a year where nothing could be taken for granted — not the return of an injured star quarterback, not fourth-quarter leads, not a functional offense.

Not the Ravens scoring from a yard out in the biggest game of their season, either. No play will be as scrutinized or vilified as the one that defined the franchise’s fourth loss in its past five playoff games. The Ravens faced third-and-goal at Cincinnati’s 1. They were tied at 17 with about 12 minutes remaining. They had better-than-even odds of upsetting the AFC North champions with a backup quarterback and setting up a divisional-round game against the top-seeded Kansas City Chiefs.

Then Huntley, lined up under center, took the snap and leapt forward, his arms extending over the pile. The ball was secure and goal-line-bound until, suddenly, it wasn’t. Inside linebacker Logan Wilson jarred it loose, the fumble falling to defensive end Sam Hubbard, who gathered it, turned and ran to the other end of the field. The Ravens thought they’d scored; the Bengals had scored.

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“That’s the play that turns the game,” coach John Harbaugh said.

Thousands of plays, more good than bad, had led the Ravens back to Cincinnati on Sunday night for their fourth postseason appearance in the past five years. An accumulation of mistakes, injuries and misfortune had left them with almost no margin for error.

The Ravens were the AFC’s sixth seed because they’d won 10 games and lost seven, chief among them: a fourth-quarter collapse against the Miami Dolphins in Week 2, another fourth-quarter collapse against the New York Giants in Week 6, another fourth-quarter collapse against the Jacksonville Jaguars in Week 12, not to mention the 10-point advantages given up in a Week 4 loss to the Buffalo Bills and Week 17 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The Ravens were starting Huntley (17-for-29 for 226 yards, two touchdowns and an interception, along with nine carries for 54 yards) because Lamar Jackson is still injured, recovering from what he last week called a Grade 2 PCL strain in his left knee. A year after missing the Ravens’ final four games of the 2021 season with an ankle injury, Jackson sat out the final six games of this season. The team went 2-4 without him.

And yet there the Ravens were Sunday night, entering halftime with a 10-9 lead over the heavily favored Bengals and closing in on a touchdown lead in the fourth quarter. They were not a perfect team, far from it. They were still pushing around a Cincinnati powerhouse that hadn’t lost since Halloween Night. Inside linebacker Roquan Smith said afterward that the Ravens were the better team.

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“But not always the best team wins,” he added. “Those guys end up making a play or two more than we did. They get to advance. We don’t.”

The Ravens had their chances. Before kicker Justin Tucker’s gimme field goal gave the Ravens a narrow lead just before halftime, the Ravens turned first-and-goal at the Bengals’ 3 into fourth-and-goal at their 4. Afterward, running back J.K. Dobbins (13 carries for 62 yards, four catches for 43 yards and a touchdown), one of the NFL’s best short-yardage backs, fumed about not getting a carry close to the goal line.

On the Bengals’ first touchdown drive, Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow turned first-and-goal from the Ravens’ 19 into a two-play exhibition for Cincinnati’s red-zone offense, finding wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase for a catch-and-run score.

On the Bengals’ second (and last) touchdown drive, inside linebacker Roquan Smith couldn’t bring down Burrow for a three-and-out-forcing sack. Six plays later, Burrow found Chase for a 10-yard completion on third-and-9. Less than two minutes later, Cincinnati had taken a 17-10 lead on a keeper by Burrow (23-for-32 for 209 yards and a touchdown).

“We’ve got to score more,” Huntley said when asked about the Ravens’ red-zone shortcomings. The offense’s touchdown rate inside the 20 was among the league’s worst. “Can’t just keep settling for field goals.”

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After one final surge Sunday ended with a mismanaged short-field drive, capped by a fourth-and-20 Hail Mary into the end zone that wide receiver James Proche II nearly caught, the Ravens were thrust headlong into an offseason where this season’s question marks will only loom larger.

Most urgently: What happens with Jackson, a pending free agent? Huntley has proven a capable caretaker, but in an AFC teeming with elite offenses, the Ravens’ championship hopes hinge on the caliber of their quarterback.

Also important: What happens to offensive coordinator Greg Roman? The Ravens outgained the Bengals (364-234) for the second straight week, but Roman has faced mounting criticism from not only outside the team facility but also from within. Dobbins’ postgame critiques came in the wake of a handful of pointed remarks from Harbaugh.

As the Ravens packed their bags one final time early Monday morning, emotions spilled out: gratitude for the game, love for their teammates, an eagerness for next season, regret that this one was already over. Safety Chuck Clark, one of the team’s emotional leaders, stared ahead at his locker, tears in his eyes. As he headed to the exit, a support staffer stopped to console him.

“People can say what they want about our team,” Harbaugh said. “If they don’t think we’re a good team, then I don’t think they’re paying attention. So [if] you pay attention, you know what kind of football team this is. If you win the game, then you prove it. We didn’t win the game, so they can continue to say what they want, but nobody in our locker room cares what anybody thinks outside of our locker room. So people that know football, watched the game, know that we have a heck of a football team.

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“The playoffs — you win, you lose based on a couple plays going your way or not going your way. That’s just how it always works.”

Jonas Shaffer is a Ravens beat writer for The Baltimore Banner. He previously covered the Ravens for The Baltimore Sun. Shaffer graduated from the University of Maryland and grew up in Silver Spring.

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