Check out the No. 7 regular-season moment in Ravens history HERE.
The Ravens defense was determined not to let it happen again.
On Christmas Day in 2016, a last-second touchdown pass from Ben Roethlisberger to Antonio Brown had given Pittsburgh a 31-27 win that eliminated Baltimore from postseason contention in Week 16.
On New Year’s Eve the following year, Andy Dalton’s 49-yard touchdown pass to Tyler Boyd on fourth-and-12 had stunned the Ravens, who entered the season finale with a projected 97-percent chance of making the playoffs. The heartbreaking collapse resulted in the Ravens missing the postseason for the third straight year, the first time that had happened since their first four years in Baltimore.
A defense that had been among the NFL’s best statistically the previous two years had come up small at the most critical times, but the 2018 Ravens were riding momentum entering Week 17 after winning five of six games since the bye week to take the AFC North lead. Rookie Lamar Jackson taking over for the injured Joe Flacco at quarterback had provided the spark for a team in transition, but the league’s top-ranked defense had played at a championship level down the stretch, most recently holding the explosive Los Angeles Chargers to 10 points in one of the Ravens’ biggest road victories in years.
All that was needed for John Harbaugh’s team to return to the playoffs for the first time since 2014 was a win over Cleveland, who had played well down the stretch with rookie quarterback Baker Mayfield at the helm. After what had happened against the Bengals at home the previous year, no one in Baltimore had any reason to be overlooking the Browns, who had also won five of their last six games.
That warning appeared overblown early as the run-heavy Ravens jumped to a 20-7 lead and were on the verge of blowing the game wide open late in the first half. However, on third-and-goal from the Cleveland 1, Jackson tried to hurdle the pile and extend the ball toward the goal line, but it was knocked loose before breaking the plane and recovered by Cleveland.
The game was much different in the second half as the Browns held the Ravens to just two field goals while Mayfield rebounded from a poor first half to throw two touchdown passes. His short scoring throw to Antonio Callaway cut the Baltimore lead to 26-24 with 3:24 remaining. And when the Ravens offense answered with a three-and-out, the gut-wrenching memories of the previous two years consumed a sold-out M&T Bank Stadium crowd.
The feeling of dread grew as completions of 19 and 16 yards — each confirmed by replay reviews — gave the Browns a first-and-10 at the Baltimore 39 with 1:20 remaining. Kicker Greg Joseph had missed a 46-yard attempt in the same direction to conclude the first half, so Cleveland needed more yardage and likely another first down to feel confident about giving him another try.
It couldn’t possibly happen again, could it?
Unlike those previous times, first-year defensive coordinator Wink Martindale was now in charge. Predecessor Dean Pees was often criticized for being passive in such late-game situations, but Martindale was influenced by the late Buddy Ryan and embraced a more aggressive approach with his defense.
On first down, Martindale blitzed Mayfield, whose sideline throw to tight end David Njoku was broken up by dime back Anthony Levine. The Ravens rushed six on second down, forcing another Mayfield incompletion. With Baltimore blitzing yet again on third-and-10, Levine broke up another pass intended for Njoku.
The stage was set for fourth down with a division title and a chance to avenge the previous two years on the line for the Ravens.
With Martindale deploying his fourth straight Cover-0 blitz, Mayfield was hurried by an unblocked Matthew Judon and threw over the middle toward running back Duke Johnson. Delaying his drop into pass coverage to deceive the Cleveland quarterback, Pro Bowl inside linebacker C.J. Mosley leaped, batted the ball in the air, and secured the interception.
Mosley and his defensive teammates sprinted the length of the field in celebration.
There would be no “Immaculate Extension” or “Fourth-and-12” this time around as the Ravens were AFC North champions for the first time since 2012 and back in the playoffs. Making the moment even sweeter was that it eliminated Pittsburgh as Steelers players were watching the end of the Baltimore-Cleveland game on the Heinz Field video board after their win over Cincinnati.
A Ravens defense that had folded under the pressure of previous big moments had finally broken through.
“Would it be us if we didn’t end it that way?” Judon said in the celebratory locker room. “Last year, the fourth-and-12, that’s all we see and that’s all we remember. And then we come down [before] fourth-and-10, Levine made two hell of a plays on man coverage, tight coverage. And then that fourth down, C.J., you can’t say enough about that guy.”