BALTIMORE — After trailing most of the day to the last-place Denver Broncos, John Harbaugh wasn’t dwelling on any negativity regarding the Ravens’ last-minute 10-9 victory.
“I can tell you right now, no one has it better than the Ravens. That was a great win,” the 15th-year head coach said in his opening statement. “In December football, you have to find a way to win the game, and I’m proud of our team. I’m proud of every single guy.”
Of course, reality would challenge that first assertion with former NFL MVP Lamar Jackson injuring his left knee on the final play of the first quarter and not returning to the game. The timing of the injury was eerie as it came exactly 51 weeks after Jackson suffered a bone bruise to his right ankle on the opening play of the second quarter of the game in Cleveland. The 25-year-old was ultimately sidelined for the remainder of the 2021 campaign as Baltimore didn’t win again and missed the playoffs.
Unlike that day against the Browns, backup Tyler Huntley was able to rally the Ravens to victory on Sunday, keeping them in first place in the AFC North. Still, a feeling of deja vu will be tough to shake as Baltimore must now prepare for back-to-back division road games — quite possibly without their star quarterback at the helm.
“It’s a knee [injury], but it’s not a season-ending type of knee,” Harbaugh said. “We’ll get more tests tomorrow and let you know how long it’s going to be. We’ll see. Hopefully, I’ll have something for you tomorrow afternoon. Certainly by Wednesday, it will be more definitive, but’s it’s going to be a number of days to weeks. We’ll see. We’ll see if he can go back this week. If not, it’ll be some time after that shortly.”
Monday’s MRI should provide a better idea of how much time Jackson will miss, but Harbaugh speaking in such terms rarely precedes a quick return. Jackson’s uncertain status coupled with Cincinnati’s impressive win over Kansas City — the Bengals’ fourth straight victory — now alters the complexion of the AFC North. The Ravens may still carry the tiebreaker and an easier remaining schedule on paper, but their post-bye performance — even with Jackson — hasn’t exactly resembled a top-shelf contender while Cincinnati is looking more and more like one of the AFC’s elite.
To be fair, the Ravens are a healthier team than they were a year ago, but that still rings hollow without Jackson’s return coming sooner than later. Regardless of who’s playing quarterback in the coming weeks, concerns about the state of Greg Roman’s offense and its lack of playmakers will persist, but all realistic hopes of a deep playoff run go out the window without a healthy and mobile Jackson at quarterback.
Baltimore can only hope its defense builds on its excellent showing against the Broncos and the running game can get back on track to help Huntley hold down the fort. The third-year quarterback reminded why the Ravens are fortunate to have him as their backup as he shook off an earlier interception to drive the offense 91 yards in the closing minutes for the game’s only touchdown, his 2-yard run to put Baltimore ahead with 28 seconds to play. Like last year, Huntley rarely pushed the ball downfield, completing 27 of 32 passes for 187 yards, but he made enough plays against the tough Denver defense when it mattered most.
Inside linebacker Roquan Smith didn’t need any convincing that Huntley could guide the Ravens to a win after he orchestrated a game-winning drive in his first NFL start against Smith’s old team last season. Even in dropping his final three starts last season, Huntley mostly played well enough to give his team a chance, which is all you can ask from the former undrafted free agent out of Utah.
“I vividly remember that drive back in Chicago, but actually it was crazy on the sideline,” Smith said. “Even when it was fourth down, I told the guys, ‘We’re about to get the first down right here, he’s about to drive it down the field, [and] we’re about to punch it in. Then, we’re going to go out there with like 20 seconds to go, and we’re going to seal it.’
“It’s crazy how that all happened. It was an amazing performance by him, and I’m excited to be his teammate now.”
Of course, the win wasn’t secured until a 63-yard field goal attempt from Broncos kicker Brandon McManus fell a few yards short, another reminder that little has come easy this season.
The Ravens said all the right things and didn’t want to dwell on the negatives after their one-point victory, but they’ll be holding their breath for news that could determine whether they truly won or lost on Sunday. Their outlook hinges on the health of their franchise quarterback — just as it did a year ago.
In a 2022 season that began with high expectations and hopes that they’d avoid the degree of injury that crushed them a year ago, the sight of Jackson limping down the stairs to the locker room in the second quarter looked and felt all too familiar.