OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The Ravens were on their way to the playoffs while Marvin Lewis was on his way out the door as Cincinnati’s longtime head coach last New Year’s Eve.
Then, “fourth-and-12” happened, a play that needs no further description or analysis in Baltimore.
Andy Dalton’s 49-yard touchdown pass to Tyler Boyd with less than a minute remaining knocked the Ravens out of the playoffs and shook up both organizations to some degree. Instead of parting ways with his head coach, Bengals owner Mike Brown gave Lewis a two-year extension to continue a run that began in 2003. Changes to the Ravens were more nuanced after a third straight season without a postseason berth, this time with the backdrop of dwindling attendance down the stretch.
Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti didn’t fire anyone, but he admitted a month later to at least briefly considering replacing John Harbaugh, who is now in his 11th season in Baltimore. Defensive coordinator Dean Pees followed through on plans to retire — something he had reconsidered in previous years — before resurfacing with Tennessee just a few weeks later. Pees surviving a second straight late-season collapse after the previous Christmas in Pittsburgh would have been a tough pill to swallow for disgruntled fans, and he apparently wasn’t interested in forcing the organization’s hand.
If that final pass had been knocked away, do the playoff-bound Ravens trade back into the first round to draft quarterback Lamar Jackson, a move interpreted by some as partly made to rejuvenate the fan base? For all the handwringing about Joe Flacco, the veteran threw 10 touchdowns to just three interceptions for an 89.1 passer rating in the final seven games of last season and was Pro Football Focus’ 11th-highest-graded quarterback in the second half of 2017 as he finally got over the back injury that sidelined him for the entire preseason.
Do we see the organization’s concerted effort to improve the passing game if the Ravens play in January and even manage to win a playoff game? Or would it have been the typical halfhearted approach on the offensive side of the ball that we’ve too often seen in recent years?
One thing is certain despite some players’ best efforts to claim the contrary. The stunning 31-27 loss is still on their minds as they travel to Cincinnati on Thursday night.
“If I were to say no, I’d be lying,” cornerback Brandon Carr said. “We’ve still got that bitter taste in our mouths, but this is a new year, new look, new opportunity for us to go out there and set the tone early. Some things we want back from that game, but that’s the past.”
To be clear, this is far from a must-win game so early in the season, but the Ravens have gone into their bye week with losing records in each of the last two seasons, illustrating how little margin for error they’ve afforded themselves the last two Decembers. It remains to be seen how strong the Bengals will be in 2018, but the defending AFC North champion Pittsburgh Steelers look as vulnerable as they’ve been in quite some time with All-Pro running back Le’Veon Bell continuing his holdout, meaning any advantage gained now is valuable ahead of whenever he returns.
Playing five of the next seven games away from M&T Bank Stadium will be a daunting stretch, so a road win over a divisional foe carries more clout than any notion of the Ravens exorcising demons from last season. The best way to prevent history from repeating itself isn’t just to execute in that critical moment, but it’s to play well enough over 16 games to not be in such a hanging-by-a-thread playoff position once again.
“How many losses did we have last year, seven?” Flacco said. “You can argue any one of those teams ended it. We didn’t play good enough in any of those games, and I don’t think we’re really thinking about that. I’m not thinking about that. I’m just thinking about how confident I am in this group that’s here right now and what we’re getting ready to go do.”
That Week 17 loss certainly appeared to alter the present with a revamped passing attack coming off a superb Week 1 and new coordinator Wink Martindale now running the defensive show. How Jackson fits in the present and as the potential quarterback of the future will also be intriguing to watch.
But you wonder how it all might have played out if “fourth-and-12” didn’t become a thing.