CINCINNATI — Sam Hubbard sat with an oxygen mask strapped to his face.
The Cincinnati Bengals defensive lineman had been in the right place at the right time, in the backfield when the ball was punched away from Ravens quarterback Tyler Huntley on the goal line. Huntley stood in disbelief, coach John Harbaugh seethed between gritted teeth, and Hubbard breathed in pure oxygen because he was almost all out.
In the most unbelievable turn of events, Baltimore went from on the verge of scoring the go-ahead touchdown in Sunday’s wild-card loss to suffering the gut-punch to end all gut-punches.
Early in the fourth quarter, with the Ravens at the Cincinnati 1-yard line, Huntley rose up above the pile, looking to secure the best performance of his career with his first three-touchdown game, ball outstretched toward the goal line. Before it could get close, linebacker Logan Wilson jarred the ball loose, straight into Hubbard’s gut. Then the 6-foot-5, 265-pound defensive end embarked on a 98-yard trek from one end zone to the other. (He actually traveled 123.6 yards in total, according to Next Gen Stats, the longest distance any player has gone this season to score a touchdown.)
As Hubbard sucked in that oxygen on the sideline, the Ravens were left wondering how everything had changed so quickly. How — with a backup quarterback — they had been so close to tasting victory and instead felt the humiliation of watching the stitched No. 94 on Hubbard’s back recede gradually into the distance. It was, so suddenly, 24-17. And it would remain that way.
“Just a freak thing,” said tight end Mark Andrews, who nearly chased down Hubbard. “For them to turn around and get seven, that’s basically a 14-point swing.”
“I’m gonna think about that the whole offseason,” Huntley said. “Just how that one play, they won the game. It’s going to be hard.”
Harbaugh said after the game that Huntley was meant to plow forward into the line (he had players lined up behind him, certainly appearing as if they were ready to push him into the end zone). But Huntley instead stretched the ball up and out, much like Trevor Lawrence did on a 2-point conversion in the Jaguars’ win over the Chargers Saturday.
Lawrence is 6-foot-6. Huntley is listed at 6-foot-1.
The result was, like many parts of the game, not particularly pretty. But that was to be expected with quarterback Lamar Jackson missing his sixth straight game due to a PCL injury. Huntley, too, missed last week’s loss to the Bengals and several practices this week because of tendinitis in his throwing shoulder.
Despite that, the 24-year-old still made enough plays to put Baltimore in position to score the go-ahead touchdown early in the fourth quarter because of his ingenuity — and some luck.
“He played pretty well,” cornerback Marlon Humphrey said. “It kind of sucks that’s the play people are going to remember.”
There was the snap that flew well over his head, skipping and hopping and bouncing around the field, well behind the line of scrimmage. That was a moment that could’ve inspired panic — and perhaps did, at least to those watching — but instead resulted in a 19-yard gain when Huntley scooped the ball up and found tight end Josh Oliver.
There was the near-sack in the third quarter that turned into a 27-yard gain when Huntley flung the ball to J.K. Dobbins. He tossed a prayer to Andrews that was answered, delivered a wobbly ball behind a wide-open Demarcus Robinson that resulted in a 41-yard score anyway and scampered for a 35-yard gain himself.
Those moments epitomized the evening as much as anything else.
They also underscored the absence of Jackson.
Sunday night was the first time Baltimore had scored two offensive touchdowns in a game since Jackson was injured more than a month ago. He hasn’t practiced since, and despite suggestions a brace could’ve gotten him on the field, Jackson didn’t travel with the team to Cincinnati. He tweeted this week that his knee “remains unstable.”
But there’s that whisper in the back of the mind that perhaps Jackson wouldn’t have thrown into double coverage on Baltimore’s first drive, resulting in an interception. Perhaps his quarterback sneak at the goal line wouldn’t have resulted in a fumble.
“If we would’ve had Lamar,” Dobbins said, “we would’ve won.”
But they didn’t, and the offseason’s main question becomes what happens to Jackson. The pending free agent could receive a franchise tag to keep him in Baltimore for at least another year. The other options include a long-term contract and a trade after tagging him.
Jackson’s absence played as loudly in the buildup as Huntley’s presence, and the results — at times special, at others calamitous — left the Ravens retreating to the bowels of Paycor Stadium in Cincinnati.
In walked Huntley, Ravens beanie on his head, black Nike slides on his feet. He sat, listening to the end of linebacker Roquan Smith’s press conference. His eyes glazed. He rubbed his wrist. His knee pads and pants were still on, he sat forward in his chair and he began picking his nails.
Then Huntley interlocked his fingers. He brought his hands to his face, rested his elbows on his knees and covered his eyes — blocking all this out, just for the moment, before it was his turn to face the cameras and the questions and expound on the play that will run through his head all offseason.
“I just tried to make a play,” Huntley said moments later.
It was Hubbard who made the play instead. He sat with that oxygen mask on his face, breathing in victory punched from the hands of defeat, leaving the Ravens breathless with disbelief.