Despite their best efforts to hang tough with Kansas City on Sunday night, the shorthanded Ravens were on the ropes late in the third quarter, a dreaded 0-2 start and another frustrating loss to the Chiefs staring them in the face.
There’s no such thing as a must-win scenario in Week 2, of course, but the thought of a young season that was supposed to be full of promise rapidly moving toward a dark place was unavoidable, especially after Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce’s 46-yard touchdown and Baltimore’s ensuing empty possession. You don’t have to be an analytics wizard to realize how bleak your chances look — ESPN’s model gave the Chiefs a 91.6% win probability when Sam Koch punted on fourth-and-27 from his own 16 — when Kansas City has a 35-24 lead and possession of the ball late in the third quarter, especially when your defense hadn’t gotten a stop since early in the second period.
All it took was talented rookie Odafe Oweh to begin to flip the script, harassing all-world quarterback Patrick Mahomes into throwing the first September interception of his career. The first-round pick followed that a couple defensive drives later by stripping the ball from running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire and recovering when it looked like Mahomes and the Chiefs were going to drain the clock and kick the game-winning field goal. It was a spectacular individual effort for a defense that was bloodied for the first 2 1/2 quarters as head coach John Harbaugh acknowledged Monday that the Ravens “don’t win the game without the way he played.”
In that fourth quarter, the elite quarterback-coach duo of Lamar Jackson and Harbaugh guided the improbable comeback victory and reminded us that the Ravens always have a chance with those two in charge on the field and the sideline respectively.
As poorly as it started for Jackson with two interceptions in that opening quarter, he was Superman after that, finally overcoming the “kryptonite” the Chiefs had been in previous meetings. The numbers did no justice to Jackson’s brilliance over the final three quarters, whether it was his jump-pass touchdown to Marquise Brown in the third quarter or his otherworldly ability to elude a Kansas City defense that was seeing him for the fourth straight season.
So much for figuring him out.
From the point that Mahomes was picked with just over two minutes left in the third quarter, Jackson gained a first down or scored a touchdown on five of his final 10 runs — excluding the final kneel-down — and went 4-for-6 passing for 44 yards with three completions moving the chains and the other setting up that defining fourth-and-1 from the Baltimore 43 with 1:05 remaining. Of course, that was when Harbaugh showed his coaching chops when it comes to both analytics and knowing his players — particularly his quarterback.
“He’s a great competitor. I’ve never been around a more competitive player,” Harbaugh said. “We’ve gotten to the point where there’s a lot of trust there. Hopefully, it runs both ways.”
The autopilot groupthink that’s persisted in coaching for decades says you punt and don’t risk the disastrous outcome of failing to convert and handing the ball back to your opponent just a few yards away from a game-winning field goal try. But instead of putting the pressure firmly on his defense to stop high-octane Kansas City for a fourth consecutive possession — a coin landing on heads three straight times isn’t suddenly more likely to land on heads again — Harbaugh tried to win the game with his best player running behind jumbo personnel and needing to gain just over a yard.
In truth, it was the higher-percentage play than punting the ball back to the Chiefs and giving Mahomes a final opportunity. The real risk was Harbaugh’s willingness to face the sharp criticism from the football establishment if the unconventional — but correct — choice didn’t produced the game-clinching first down. It wouldn’t have been the first or the last time for someone unafraid of stepping outside the traditional coaching box.
There are never any guarantees — ask the professional poker or blackjack player whether the correct play always results in a winning hand — but the correct decision was rewarded with the desired outcome and the 36-35 win on this night.
When asked about Jackson and the rest of his team rebounding from a rough beginning, Harbaugh expressed a philosophy that applied to the game, that fourth-down decision, and the start of the season with the Ravens enduring such a brutal run of injuries over the last month. Time will determine what this victory means in the long run with it only being September and the Ravens still operating from a smaller margin for error due to their many injuries, but they’re not dwelling on those absences, evident by their gutsy performance against the AFC powerhouse that previously had their number in the Jackson era.
“Even if the game had gone the other way, I told them it was an honor to be on the field with them, no matter what the outcome is,” Harbaugh said. “You don’t mourn outcomes; you mourn people. You work on process, but you can celebrate victories.”
The Ravens could relish finally breaking through against the Chiefs by staying true to their process and culture in the face of so much adversity and outside doubt. Sunday reminded us never to count out a team with a star quarterback who can do such remarkable things on the field and a seasoned head coach willing to put his own neck on the line to give his team its best chance to win.