The Ravens’ offense didn’t save its worst for last Saturday afternoon, not quite, but it came close. For three quarters, the Ravens had stopped and started, thrown away points, dropped passes, squandered momentum, done everything but put a scare into one of the NFL’s worst defenses.
Midway through the fourth quarter of a dispiriting 13-3 loss to the Browns, the Ravens authored their own special kind of masterclass in ineptitude, replete with all the markings of their wasted afternoon.
With nine-plus minutes left, the Ravens (9-5) faced fourth-and-4 in their own territory, a 10-point deficit and swirling Cleveland snow. They’d run all over the Browns for most of the afternoon, but they weren’t going to pass. They were barely going to get the ball snapped in time. The whole operation looked rushed — the hurried claps from quarterback Tyler Huntley; the pauses of uncertainty on offense as he scrambled to his right; the pass to wide receiver James Proche II, who landed out of bounds with the ball, another flop of a drive ending with a thud.
The Ravens are still heavy favorites to make the playoffs, but with quarterback Lamar Jackson (knee) sidelined, the defense losing key players to injuries and their normally reliable special teams faltering, Saturday’s game was not an advertisement for their postseason prospects.
The Ravens, who have scored just two touchdowns in the 11 quarters since Jackson’s injury, will return home for a Christmas Eve game next Saturday against the Atlanta Falcons with a 97% chance of making the playoffs, according to FiveThirtyEight’s projections, but they are now looking up at the Cincinnati Bengals, who face the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday, in the AFC North standings. They’ll also hold their breath as they await news on cornerback Marcus Peters (calf) and defensive lineman Calais Campbell (knee), who left the game in the second half.
Cornerback Marlon Humphrey had said Tuesday that the Ravens wanted to give Watson a “not-so-soft welcoming” to their AFC North rivalry. Over his first two games since returning from an 11-game NFL suspension for violating the NFL’s personal-conduct policy, Watson had mostly struggled, completing 59.4% of his passes and throwing more interceptions (two) than touchdowns (one).
On Saturday, he at times looked as close to his All-Pro form as he has since being mired in sexual assault allegations. Watson finished 18-for-28 for 161 yards, often picking on safety Kyle Hamilton. The rookie allowed six completions on seven targets for 46 yards, according to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats.
Watson got some help, too. The Browns (6-8) took a 13-3 lead on a 91-yard touchdown drive kept alive by a flag on outside linebacker Justin Houston, who was penalized for taking Watson down by the face mask on a third-and-7 scramble. Ten plays later, including a fourth-and-1 conversion in Ravens territory, Watson found wide receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones on a 4-yard catch-and-run score, eluding Humphrey and inside linebacker Patrick Queen on the way to the end zone and a 13-3 lead.
Huntley had thrived in his first appearance in Cleveland, when he replaced an injured Jackson in Week 14 last season and nearly led a second-half comeback (27-for-38 for 270 yards and a touchdown). But a week after being knocked out of the Ravens’ narrow road win over the Pittsburgh Steelers, he struggled.
In his sixth career start, Huntley finished 17-for-30 for 138 yards. His receivers weren’t a big help, either. One costly red-zone interception in the third quarter came after veteran wide receiver DeSean Jackson bobbled into the hands of cornerback Denzel Ward.
A drive later, after Peoples-Jones’ score, wide receiver Demarcus Robinson, who’d fumbled out of bounds on the Ravens’ first play from scrimmage, gave it up again. This time, Cleveland recovered, ending the possession after just one play.
The Ravens’ lackluster passing game — their wide receivers combined for just 58 yards — stood in stark contrast to their revved-up rushing attack. Running back J.K. Dobbins (9.6 yards per carry) and Gus Edwards (7.9 yards per carry) combined for 180 yards as the Ravens finished with 198 rushing yards overall, their second straight with over 190. That’s the most rushing yards by a team that scores no touchdowns since the 2013 Rams, according to ESPN Stats & Info.
From the start, the Ravens (9-5) looked sloppy on a short week. On their opening drive, fullback Patrick Ricard was stopped short of the line to gain on fourth-and-1, ending a promising 10-play, 71-yard drive inside Cleveland’s 10-yard line.
The Ravens’ only score of the half, a 53-yard field goal by kicker Justin Tucker midway through the second quarter, came after wide receiver Devin Duvernay and Huntley botched a third-and-long handoff that Duvernay was fortunate to recover. Tucker’s kick was the 355th made field goal of his career, breaking a tie with kicker Matt Stover for the most in franchise history.
The Ravens entered halftime down 6-3 after Tucker narrowly missed a 48-yard attempt as time expired. His first misfire from inside 50 yards this season capped another messy drive. After converting a third-and-7 with 27 seconds left, the Ravens had taken a timeout close to midfield. Huntley appeared to have communication difficulties when he huddled up for the next play, and the Ravens’ quick snap wasn’t quick enough. They were called for a delay-of-game penalty, a distance that loomed large on Tucker’s miss.
Later, as the Ravens sought to trim the Browns’ deficit to one score in the fourth quarter, Tucker had a 50-yard field goal blocked by Browns defensive tackle Jordan Elliott.
This story will be updated.
Falcons at Ravens
Saturday, 1 p.m.
TV: Ch. 45
Radio: 97.9 FM, 101.5 FM, 1090 AM