There are no certainties when the Fourth-Quarter Ravens are playing, but there are probabilities, and with less than 12 minutes left in the fourth quarter Sunday, the odds were in their favor.
They had a two-touchdown lead over the Cleveland Browns. They were at home. They had the better quarterback, the better offensive talent, maybe even the better defense. All they had to do was fluster an inconsistent quarterback protected by third-string offensive tackles. All they had to do was contain a running game that they had bottled up a month earlier. To keep a lead the Ravens had held since the game’s opening minute, only the bare minimum was required.
“These are the types of games that you’ve got to win, you’ve got to be great at,” tight end Mark Andrews would say afterward, adding: “It felt like we had control of the game.”
And then, poof. The AFC-leading Ravens, the do-they-even-have-a-weakness Ravens — those Ravens stepped aside for the Fourth-Quarter Ravens, and calamity ensued in a stupefying 33-31 loss that made perfect sense only to those familiar with this team’s strange variant.
It can show up at any time, against any team. There is no known antidote, not even fourth-quarter success itself. On Sunday, the Ravens (7-3) took a 31-17 lead against the Browns on a 1-yard touchdown run by running back Gus Edwards. Their win expectancy with 11:34 remaining, according to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats, was 95.3%.
That was exceptional, even by the Fourth-Quarter Ravens’ standards. When they bumbled their way to an overtime loss to the Indianapolis Colts in Week 3, their odds late in the fourth quarter were only as good as 91%. When they turned down opportunity after opportunity to put away the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 5, their win probability midway through the fourth quarter hit only 89%.
Sunday’s collapse was extra special. The Browns scored 24 of the game’s final 31 points, each dagger more inexplicable than the last. Against a Ravens defense that led the NFL in yards per play allowed, Cleveland covered 75 yards in less than three minutes to pull within a touchdown, 31-24. Against Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson, who entering Sunday hadn’t thrown an interception since Week 6, the Browns turned a fortuitous deflection at the line of scrimmage into a pick six for cornerback Greg Newsome II. Only a missed extra point kept Baltimore ahead.
Inside M&T Bank Stadium, however, where in recent weeks the Ravens had demolished teams more well rounded and less banged up than Cleveland, the Browns played as if they knew the ending to their comeback story. The Ravens’ final possession, a put-away opportunity that only a quarter earlier would’ve seemed inconceivable, ended after one first down. The Browns’ final possession ended the game, kicker Dustin Hopkins’ 40-yard field goal throwing the AFC North into chaos.
“We did not play the kind of winning football that we need to play to win a game like that,” coach John Harbaugh said.
It’s becoming a familiar narrative in AFC North play. What ailed the Ravens last season has resurfaced this year. In a 13-3 road loss to the Browns last season, they abandoned their ground game. On Sunday, rookie running back Keaton Mitchell had two carries for 32 yards, including a 39-yard touchdown in the first quarter, along with one catch for 32 yards. After halftime, he had one touch. Harbaugh said it was “the way it went as far as the play-calling.”
In a 16-13 loss to the Steelers near the end of last season, the Ravens could not stop a lethargic Pittsburgh offense from marching downfield and scoring a go-ahead touchdown in the final minute. On Sunday, they allowed 7 yards per play in the fourth quarter to a Browns team without its starting left tackle, starting right tackle, backup right tackle and starting running back.
“We just have to finish the game. … We were up 14 points. We just have to finish like we’ve been doing.”— Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson
Quarterback Deshaun Watson (20-for-34 for 213 yards, one touchdown and one interception), overcoming an injured shoulder and a 1-for-9 start, hit all seven of his passes over the final two drives. He also scrambled his way into Ravens territory on the game-winning drive, adding to a ground game that racked up 178 yards (4.9 per carry) on one of the NFL’s top run defenses.
In the Ravens’ 17-10 loss to the Steelers last month, Jackson followed a hot start by throwing a costly red-zone interception and had a last-gasp drive ended by a strip sack. On Sunday, he again vacillated between electric and errant. Jackson went 13-for-23 for 223 yards and a touchdown, adding eight carries for a team-high 41 yards, but he threw two interceptions. In a season of blowouts, he has not needed much late-game magic. Whatever he could conjure Sunday was not enough.
“That pick six, the tipped ball, that’s unfortunate,” Jackson said. “We just have to finish the game. … We were up 14 points. We just have to finish like we’ve been doing.”
The Ravens’ margins are thinning. After safety Kyle Hamilton’s opening-minute pick six and Mitchell’s early race to the end zone, they seemed on their way to a reprisal of their Week 4 blowout in Cleveland, to another week atop the AFC. What power ranking could possibly deny the excellence of a team with both a shutdown defense and an offense carving up maybe the NFL’s stingiest unit?
Instead, the Ravens left their locker room Sunday in a hurry and a hush. Their lead in the AFC North over the Steelers (6-3) and Browns (6-3) is down to a half-game, and the defending division champion Cincinnati Bengals (5-4) come to Baltimore on Thursday night. This is not a good week to have a short week, not with cornerback Marlon Humphrey and left tackle Ronnie Stanley, two of the team’s highest-paid players, leaving the game with ankle and knee injuries, respectively.
The Fourth-Quarter Ravens needed all the help they could get. It never arrived. Now the team has to figure out how it lost a game in which it never trailed. It’s a question the Ravens should be used to by now.
“When Kyle had that pick on the second play and Mitchell ran in for a touchdown, nobody thought that they were going to win the game,” defensive lineman Justin Madubuike said, “and that’s what happened.”
Harbaugh did not have any update on the severity of Humphrey and Stanley’s injuries.
Mitchell reached a top speed of 20.93 mph on his rushing touchdown, the second-fastest time for a Ravens ball carrier this season. The fastest? That’s also Mitchell, who hit 20.99 mph on his 40-yard rushing touchdown in Week 9 against the Bengals.
According to The New York Times’ playoff picture, the Ravens’ odds of making the playoffs fell to 87%, while the Browns’ rose to 82%. The Ravens have a 41% chance of winning the AFC North, also ahead of Cleveland (32%). But the Kansas City Chiefs’ odds of claiming the AFC’s top seed jumped to 59%, while the Ravens’ fell to 11%.