The Ravens' 2022 season closed with a bitter pill to swallow in a wild-card playoff loss in Cincinnati.
In a game that not many pundits felt the Ravens had a chance to win, they outplayed the Bengals in almost every way, but a few mistakes and one glaring turn of events left the Ravens with a 24-17 defeat.
Here are five thoughts on the game:
The Ravens were good enough, which makes it sting even more.
Without Lamar Jackson, the Ravens were heavy underdogs, at least according to the outside world. Inside the locker room, the Ravens still felt like they could beat their AFC North rivals, and they were right.
The Ravens could have won. At least some Ravens felt they should have won. Roquan Smith said the Ravens were "for sure" the better team on this night.
"But not always the best team wins," he said. "Those guys ended up making a play or two more than we did. They get to advance, we don't."
With backup Tyler Huntley under center, Baltimore's offense outgained Cincinnati's high-flying unit in yardage by a lot – 364-264. The Ravens controlled the clock with a strong running game and hit some big plays in the passing game.
Baltimore's defense cut out the Bengals' big plays and landed some haymakers. They held Joe Burrow to just 209 passing yards and gave up just 17 points to Cincy's powerful offense.
Overall, Baltimore made Cincinnati play on its terms – a knock-down, drag-out fight. But backed up against the ropes, the Bengals landed a wild, and somewhat lucky, uppercut on the Ravens' chin and dropped them to the mat for a knockout blow.
What's going to sting this offseason is, once again, the feeling of being good enough but falling short. Last year, Jackson's injury sunk the Ravens' playoff hopes. This year they made it, and were still good enough to perhaps advance, but it didn't work out.
Emotionally, it would have been easier to get blown out, as the pundits predicted. That could be chalked up to not having Jackson. But this was a game the Ravens had in their grip, and it slipped through their fingers. The "what ifs" are the most painful.
One play makes the difference … again.
This game will forever be defined by one play. Huntley's failed goal-line quarterback sneak leap turned the game. The Ravens were at least going to take a fourth-quarter lead, potentially go up a touchdown. In the blink of an eye, they were instead down seven.
Huntley's fumble and the resulting 98-yard fumble return touchdown by Bengals defensive end Sam Hubbard was the game. The Ravens still came back and had a chance to tie or win the game at the end, and there are countless other plays that could have changed the course of events, but let's be real. That was the game.
"I'm going to be thinking about that the whole offseason – just how one play, they won the game," a dejected Huntley said.
Obviously, it was a mistake by Huntley to try to jump over the pile, which was not how the play was designed. Even though the Ravens were on the 1-yard line, it was a long 1. It was going to take more than just a jump and ball extension to reach the goal line. It seemed Huntley didn't have the play measured up correctly.
At the same time, it's hard to make Huntley the fall guy. He played pretty darn well and hard in his first career playoff start, while also dealing with a shoulder and wrist injury. He tried to make a play. It just was not the right play.
It taps into feelings from a couple years ago, when one play flipped the Ravens' divisional playoff loss in Buffalo. That year, the Ravens were threatening to tie the game at the end of the third quarter, when Jackson was intercepted by Taron Johnson in the end zone and he returned it for a 101-yard touchdown. That was the final score in a 17-3 loss. The goal-line fumble will be remembered the same way – brutal.
The red-zone offense was the problem that never got fixed.
It seems rather appropriate that the Ravens lost the game because of their shortcomings in the red zone. That was, in large part, what held them back all season.
Baltimore scored a touchdown on its first trip to the red zone, capping a 17-play drive with a 2-yard pass to J.K. Dobbins in which he showed his heart to fight through a tackle and stretch to get the ball over the goal line.
But the following three drives into the red zone ended with a 22-yard field goal, the fumble returned for a touchdown, and a turnover on downs to end the game. The Ravens entered the game ranked 30th in the league in red zone efficiency, scoring a touchdown 46% of the time. They were below that mark on this night, and it ultimately proved to be their demise.
After scoring his touchdown, Dobbins didn't get another touch inside the 5-yard line and he made his displeasure known after the game. The Ravens tried all kinds of things in the red zone, but simply turning around and handing it to Dobbins may have been the best option.
"He (Huntley) should've never been in that situation," Dobbins said. "I don't get a single carry. I believe I would've put it in the end zone."
A championship-level defense wasn't enough.
The Ravens defense rose to the occasion yet again, but it still wasn't enough.
If you said going into the game that the Ravens would hold Burrow to just over 200 passing yards, sack him four times, give up just 39 rushing yards to Joe Mixon, not give up a passing play of 20 or more yards all game, and get a turnover, that sounds like a win.
Baltimore made Burrow settle for short gains throughout the night. The only bugaboo was on third down, as the Bengals converted on 7-of-13 attempts after the Ravens held opponents to 35% all year long.
Still, this was a championship-worthy performance by Baltimore's defense, which will go down as one of the best in team history that just didn't get a chance to finish the job. The Ravens defense got stronger as the year went on. With all its pieces back and healthy, it would have been fun to see how far it could have gone.
- As if there weren't enough brutal plays in this game, seeing how close James Proche was to catching the deflection on the final heave into the end zone was one final twist of the dagger. The Ravens were so close in so many ways.
- The play that really doomed the final drive was the holding penalty on Kevin Zeitler, which also threw off the Ravens' planned use of their timeouts that got plenty of scrutiny. The Ravens went from what would have been a third-and-6 from the 13-yard line to second-and-20 from the 27.
- Smith's fairytale week ended with a fizzle, as he had half as many tackles (eight) as the week before and missed a key third-down tackle for loss on Burrow on the Bengals' first drive of the second half. Burrow ended up scoring a touchdown on that drive on a quarterback sneak (double ouch).
- Through one quarter, Ja'Marr Chase had as many catches (five) as the Ravens had offensive plays. Chase added his sixth catch on the first play of the second quarter – a 7-yard touchdown. Chase's yards after a catch were a problem early in this game as the Bengals marched down the field with a series of short throws and runs. Still, he finished with nine grabs for just 84 yards.
- Kyle Hamilton's ferocious hit on former Raven Hayden Hurst flipped the early momentum. After falling in a 9-0 hole, the Ravens were suddenly in position to take the lead following the Dobbins touchdown. Perhaps even more important, the hit was like an injection of swagger into the defense that surrendered back-to-back long drives to open the game.
- Odafe Oweh had arguably his best game of the season in the playoffs. Hopefully that can springboard him into the offseason. This Ravens defense has a lot of talent returning, and veteran Justin Houston said he wants to keep playing too.
- I'd been waiting on that Demarcus Robinson double move since he did it twice in his first preseason game with the Ravens. He's got a knack for baiting cornerbacks and he got Eli Apple to take a big chomp out of the bait.