Ravens regular-season moment No. 17: “Our backs were against the wall”

May 22, 2020 | Luke Jones

Check out the No. 18 regular-season moment in Ravens history HERE.

The Ravens hadn’t won a truly critical December game in a very long time.

After missing the playoffs in each of the previous three years, Baltimore was a team in transition as rookie first-round quarterback Lamar Jackson had replaced the injured Joe Flacco during the Week 10 bye. Many assumed that makeover would continue with a new head coach as rumors had swirled about John Harbaugh and the organization likely parting ways at the end of the season.

Jackson was still another offseason of development away from blossoming into the league MVP, but his presence had revitalized a stagnant rushing attack and breathed new life into the Ravens, who had won four of five coming out of the bye week to climb back into the playoff race. The revamped ball-control offense had better complemented a defense that dominated down the stretch and finished first in the NFL in total yards allowed, second in points allowed, and third in defensive efficiency.

But a Week 16 showdown with the red-hot Los Angeles Chargers — who were coming off extra rest after an impressive Thursday road win over AFC-leading Kansas City the week before — was the kind of test the Ravens simply hadn’t passed in recent years. Memories of the Christmas loss in Pittsburgh two years earlier and the fourth-and-12 choke against Cincinnati in the 2017 finale were too strong for most to believe Baltimore would beat one of the NFL’s elite, especially on the road.

The plot felt all too familiar as the Ravens dominated the first half statistically, but they led only 6-3 at halftime after going 0-for-3 inside the red zone. Jackson’s beautiful 68-yard touchdown pass to fellow rookie Mark Andrews and a Justin Tucker 56-yard field goal gave the Ravens a 16-10 lead in the third quarter, but the offense then stalled with three straight three-and-outs, continuing to put great pressure on a Baltimore defense that had bullied eight-time Pro Bowl quarterback Philip Rivers and one of the league’s best offenses all night.

In the post-Super Bowl XLVII era, Ravens defenses had remained strong statistically, but a reputation for faltering at critical moments was impossible to overlook. Even two weeks earlier, Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs had pulled off a miraculous fourth-down conversion to force overtime and deny Baltimore an upset bid at Arrowhead Stadium.

That’s why Ravens fans couldn’t help but feel uneasy when Sam Koch’s punt from his own end zone was returned 24 yards by Desmond King to the Baltimore 39 with three minutes remaining. Not only could Rivers and the Chargers take the lead with a touchdown, but they had a short field to do it.

Someone would have to make a play for the Ravens to keep strong playoff hopes alive.

A holding penalty pushed Los Angeles back before Rivers completed a first-and-20 throw over the middle to eight-time Pro Bowl tight end Antonio Gates, who fought for more yardage as cornerback Brandon Carr wrapped him up. Linebacker Patrick Onwuasor arrived a moment later to punch out the football, and slot cornerback Tavon Young scooped it up and sprinted 62 yards for a touchdown.

Game over.

The defense had closed a terrific performance, and the Ravens had secured their biggest December victory in years. And with Pittsburgh losing at New Orleans the following day, Baltimore needed only a Week 17 win to secure its first AFC North championship since 2012.

The Chargers would exact their revenge in a wild-card round rematch at M&T Bank Stadium two weeks later, but the Ravens had finally broken through after not being quite good enough for too long. The Week 16 win brought Jackson’s first 200-yard passing performance as a pro, the defense’s ability to finish, and validation for the previous night’s announcement that Harbaugh would return in 2019 with a new contract extension to continue to lead a new era for the Ravens.

“Once again, our backs were against the wall,” Harbaugh said to his players in the locker room after the 22-10 victory. “Nobody thought we’d come out here and win. Except who? Us.”