BALTIMORE — No words do justice to the finish of the Ravens’ thrilling 29-26 win over the Minnesota Vikings at M&T Bank Stadium on Sunday.
Five lead changes and 36 points scored in the final 125 seconds of play? You just had to see it to believe it.
But more importantly for the Ravens, the furious sequence that concluded with quarterback Joe Flacco throwing a 9-yard dart to rookie Marlon Brown in the back of the end zone with four seconds remaining resulted in Baltimore saving its season — at least for now. The action resembled an epic heavyweight fight with haymakers thrown back and forth in the final round, but the miraculous feel to the win conjured up visions of Jacoby Jones’ game-tying 70-yard touchdown catch against Denver in the divisional round last January.
“I think this is probably crazier,” Flacco said. “That one was probably a little more exciting, just because of what was on the line. But when you look at this, similar things were on the line, just not at the same time of year.”
With three games remaining against first-place teams — two of them on the road — the Ravens couldn’t afford a loss to the underwhelming Vikings, who were the better team for much of the afternoon in wintry conditions that brought play to a crawl at different points in the game. Sunday’s contest wasn’t as much of a “must win” as it was “you better win” against a team without a road victory all season.
Some of the Ravens’ biggest deficiencies plagued them again as the offense generated very little through the first 55 minutes of the game beyond a first-quarter touchdown aided by a questionable fumble call. The defense performed reasonably well until another fourth-quarter wilting in which it gave up 20 points, a theme far too common for an otherwise above-average unit.
The running game improved in the second half as Ray Rice found solid running room to collect 67 yards on 17 carries, but the unit also failed in several short-yardage situations as it has for most of the year.
By now, the Ravens’ biggest flaws are unlikely to be fixed with only three games remaining in the regular season. However, they maintained their grip on the No. 6 spot in the AFC playoff race and the recent emergence of Flacco and Jones coupled with Sunday’s return of tight end Dennis Pitta could just be what the Ravens need to advance to the postseason for the sixth consecutive season.
To be fair, Flacco played poorly for much of the game completing just 21 of 40 passes for a touchdown and three interceptions while collecting only 154 yards until the final two drives. His receivers didn’t help much as several drops contributed to drives stalling and the Ravens punting for much of the afternoon.
But the sixth-year quarterback was on point when it mattered, going 7-for-10 for 91 yards and two touchdowns the final two times the Baltimore offense touched the ball. His strong finish followed two of his best performances of the season against New York and Pittsburgh as it appears Flacco might be getting hot at the perfect time after persevering through several factors working against him all season.
On Sunday, he completed his 18th career game-winning drive in the fourth quarter or overtime and his third of the season.
“I see a lot of calluses on his character,” coach John Harbaugh said. “Joe is our guy, and to me, that’s all you really need to say.”
For the first time this season, Flacco was able to lean on Pitta, who completed a remarkable comeback from a devastating hip injury suffered just over four months ago in the first week of training camp. The Ravens have missed his presence in the middle of the field and inside the red zone as he was expected to fill an even larger role this season with the departure of veteran slot receiver Anquan Boldin.
It was Pitta’s 1-yard touchdown catch on fourth-and-goal with 2:05 remaining that put the Ravens back in front and triggered the frenzy of back-and-forth scoring.
He looked rusty early, failing to make a couple catches that he’d normally rein in, but his presence was felt down the stretch as he finished the game with six catches for 48 yards and drew a questionable pass interference call on the final drive that set up the Ravens inside the Minnesota 30. Two plays later, Pitta made an 18-yard reception to bring the Ravens to the 9 before Brown capped off his strong seven-catch, 92-yard performance with the game-winning touchdown catch.
Welcome back, indeed, to the Ravens tight end.
“I remember when I got injured, I didn’t know if I was even going to play football again,” Pitta said. “Being able to stand here and talk about a victory and being a part of that is special for me. And just being a part of this team and being able to fight the way we did today is pretty remarkable.”
Jones provided the big-play ability for the third straight game as his 77-yard kickoff return allowed the Ravens to regain the lead with 1:16 left and showed once again how much of a home-run hitter he can be for a team that’s lacked offensive firepower for much of the season. His Week 1 knee injury and the lackluster performance that followed an extended layoff now appear to be distant memories.
Just as he showed all last season, Jones is entering the zone where he appears to be a threat to take it the distance every time he touches the football.
“I finally got back there, and so the chemistry with my guys that are blocking for me, we’ve got that chemistry going,” Jones said. “And health — I’m feeling good again. I’m feeling like the old [No.] 12.”
Only time will tell how significant the Ravens’ win over the Vikings was on Sunday. For now, it will simply go down as one of the most exciting games in franchise history as five touchdowns were scored in the final 125 seconds of a game for the first time in the 1970 NFL merger era.
But the timing of Pitta’s return to go along with Flacco’s late-game heroics and Jones’ return ability will be needed even more over the season’s final three weeks.
The Ravens still haven’t played a complete game, but they have flashed encouraging signs over a three-game homestand that pushed them over the .500 mark for the first time since early October.
“We’re starting to get healthier,” Flacco said. “We’re starting to put it together as a team. We just need to start putting it together for a full 60 minutes and see where it takes us.”
They barely put it together enough to pull off a miraculous win Sunday to save their season.
The Ravens can only hope to build from there.