Five thoughts on the Ravens' 16-13 overtime loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium:
Against long odds, the door to the playoffs opened wider than anyone imagined. The Ravens were going to have a real shot if they took care of their business. And they put themselves in position to do just that. But here's the truth: They just weren't good enough to do it this season – just not good enough to take care of their own business I mean. They get a ton of credit for playing hard, overachieving through adversity and giving themselves chances to win more games than they did, but the same issues continually arose. Their offense made key mistakes, failed to finish drives and couldn't take advantage when it dominated the clock. Their defense couldn't make the one play it needed to close out games. That was the story of the season and also was the story Sunday as the Ravens had control but let their bitter rivals off the hook. Now, a long offseason looms, with plenty of time to dissect how and why the Ravens finished the 2021 season with six straight losses – their longest losing streak in 14 years. It's an ending no one saw coming. But oh, it happened.
One play changed everything. It was the first play of the fourth quarter. The Ravens had a four-point lead and seemingly were about to add to it, facing a second-and-7 at the Pittsburgh 12 after driving the ball 64 yards, almost entirely on the ground. Their offensive line was pushing Pittsburgh's D-line around. Latavius Murray had rushed for 115 yards in the third quarter alone. But the Ravens elected to pass on that second down and paid dearly for it when Tyler Huntley was intercepted as he tried to thread the ball through coverage to Mark Andrews. Could the Ravens have just continued to run the ball in that situation? Asked after the game, Head Coach John Harbaugh gave an even-handed reply: "Sure, we could've. We could've run the ball there." It appeared receiver Rashod Bateman was open in the end zone to Huntley's left, but as Huntley explained, a defender was "under" Bateman in the flat, making the throw too dangerous to take on. "I was just trying to get the ball to a great player," Huntley said. Andrews graciously took the fall, saying it was a touchdown if he came back on the ball. I'm not putting the onus on either player as much as the decision not to keep feeding Murray and pounding Pittsburgh's reeling D-line.
The Ravens probably know better than any team that you can't give Ben Roethlisberger too many chances because he'll beat you; the Steelers' 39-year-old quarterback has done it to the Ravens more than anyone in Baltimore cares to remember. And in what was billed as likely his final regular season game, Roethlisberger gave a vintage performance. Early on, he tossed an interception and missed badly on several throws, very much looking his age. But the Ravens didn't take advantage of several chances to put him away. Rookie safety Brandon Stephens dropped an interception in his hands. Huntley threw the pick in the end zone. With the score tied, the Ravens had the ball in the final minute of regulation and the beginning of overtime, but came away with nothing. That's too much rope to give Roethlisberger. "Big Ben, he's a legend for making the play in the critical moments," Ravens D-lineman Calais Campbell said. And he was a legend to the end – on the game-winning drive in overtime, he faced third-and-7, third-and-9 and fourth-and-8, and converted them all into first downs. The Steelers are likely entering a new and uncertain era without him, but the Ravens surely are glad the old era is over.
In his fourth start of the season, Huntley wasn't quite as effective or dynamic as he had been in several earlier games. He was sacked three times, threw two interceptions, fumbled, and completed just over half of his 31 pass attempts. His quarterback rating of 37.2 is not going to be framed, nor will the offense's 3-of-14 performance on third down, which led to a busy day for Sam Koch, who punted seven times, just shy of his season high. The bottom line is the offense produced just one touchdown Sunday after producing zero against the Los Angeles Rams the week before. But I'm not here to bury Huntley. To the contrary, he deserves a ton of credit. I'm talking big picture here. The offense was going nowhere when Lamar Jackson went down with what turned out to be a season-ending ankle injury in December. Huntley got the unit moving again and gave the Ravens a great chance to win every game in which he was the starter. He was still doing it Sunday, rushing for 72 yards as the Steelers struggled to contain him on the ground. It was easy to forget he was a former undrafted free agent getting his first chance to show the NFL what he can do. He did show his inexperience at times, but he also showed he might have the stuff to be a starter in the NFL. I'm putting Huntley near the top of my list of the brightest spots of 2021.
Short takes – It was a good day for Marquise Brown in that he became the Ravens' first thousand-yard receiver since Mike Wallace in 2016, but it also was a rough day as he failed to hold on to two passes that could have changed the outcome. The first was on a slant pattern in the end zone; the ball went through his hands. Then, late in the game, he had his hands around a ball that could have helped to set up a game-winning field goal attempt, but it was knocked out of his hands. That's not supposed to happen … Losing the turnover battle again, the Ravens finished the season with a minus-11 figure in that stat. With that in mind, it's amazing they were in playoff contention on the last day of the season … After the game, Campbell looked like a guy who had played his last game, sitting on the bench and soaking in the moment. But once again, he left the door open when he spoke to reporters, saying "I've got to go through the process" of deciding whether he wants to keep playing … On the series where the ball went through Brown's hands in the end zone, the Ravens snapped the ball five times from the 7-yard-line or closer and had to settle for a field goal. It was a microcosm of the season.