Even at 0-3, the Ravens had a vision.
In their sights were the Pittsburgh Steelers, and their mission became clear.
Win this game against their AFC North rivals, and they would avoid an almost unbearable four-game losing streak, one that would surely end their season just as October began.
But the Ravens’ come-from-behind 23-20 overtime win before 63,929 stunned Heinz Field fans Oct. 1 prevented the team’s future from looking more blurry than ever.
“The finish is what our guys was able to accomplish,” head coach John Harbaugh said. “That was a great win for us.”
Wide receiver Kamar Aiken’s leaping 25-yard catch and kicker Justin Tucker’s 42-yard field goal sent the game into overtime, capping a comeback from a 20-7 deficit. After two fourth-down stops, Tucker won the Ravens’ 22nd overtime game with a 52-yard field goal with 5:08 left in the extra session.
It was Tucker’s eighth career game-winning field goal.
“The thought was possibly to get [the Steelers] to jump offsides,” Harbaugh said. “Justin Tucker’s a great kicker, and he made a great kick.”
The importance of the kick was not lost on Tucker.
“I’d have to say it was the most important kick I ever made,” Tucker told Comcast SportsNet.
What helped more than anything else was the Ravens’ season-high 191 rushing yards and a defense that allowed just two third-down conversions after ranking third-worst in that category through three weeks.
It gave the Ravens a win in the same place where they had their most recent triumph last January in the wild-card playoff round.
The desperate Ravens were already reeling from the news earlier in the day that first-round pickBreshad Perriman underwent arthroscopic surgery on his troublesome knee and would be out indefinitely.
They have never lost four in a row to start a season, and they narrowly avoided a four-game losing streak that would have tied for the second-longest in team history behind the epic 2007 nine-game collapse. Baltimore also lost four straight in 1996, 1998 and 2005.
It also kept alive Harbaugh’s streak of having coached 116 games without a four-game losing streak, second most all time to John Madden (142).
“You want to be bold; you want to be aggressive,” Harbaugh said. “But their defense is stout. … These guys can rush the passer. They’re bringing blitzes from every angle.
“Every adversity you walk through in life is the toughest in your life when you’re in it. We know where we’re at.”
With three defeats by a total of 14 points, Baltimore was the only NFL team this year to have had three games decided by six or fewer points.
But the Ravens’ leaky defense and failure to exercise in ball control through a running game had allowed opposing passing attacks to strike for more than 700 yards and three touchdowns through the air the past two games.
Previously unheralded Pittsburgh backup safety Ross Cockrell notched two turnovers, the second one coming early during the third quarter when he scooped up quarterback Joe Flacco’s first fumble of the year.
The Ravens’ two giveaways pushed their season-long turnover ratio to minus-three. Moreover, Flacco (20-for-33, 189 yards, one touchdown, one interception, 73.9 rating) was sacked a career-record-tying five times.
With teammate Steve Smith Sr. (24 yards, four catches) having been held in check and slowed by a lower-back bruise, Aiken (77 yards, five catches, one touchdown) got the better of Cockrell for a 15-yard touchdown as the Ravens furiously drove 80 yards in six plays to get within six points.
Fourth-round pick Za’Darus Smith then notched his first two career sacks, helping the Ravens become the first team all season to begin a drive in Steelers territory, holding the Steelers to just 14 third-quarter yards during the process.
But the promising drive fizzled when a fake field goal play — a toss from holder Sam Koch to third-string tight end Nick Boyle — was stuffed by backup linebacker Sean Spence.
Boyle, a fifth-round pick from Delaware, atoned for that play by blasting through a tackler on a fourth-down pass and moving the chains as the third quarter ended.
It set up Tucker’s 40-yard field goal that brought the Ravens to within 20-17 with just more than 10 minutes to go.
But a failed Flacco fourth-down sneak with less than five minutes to go was bottled up, effectively ending the drive.
Pittsburgh kicker Josh Scobee missed two possible game-sealing field goals — decreasing his team’s faith in him in overtime — but five incompletions and a sack on the final two drives almost effectively ended the game before Aiken and Tucker came through.
The Ravens now get a mini-bye of sorts before they return home to try and get another division win against the Cleveland Browns Oct. 11.
Despite the Ravens’ uncharacteristic record and the absence of stars such as Terrell suggs and Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, the basic tenet of a Ravens-Steelers game — tough, physical, run-oriented play — was still alive.
The Ravens’ moribund running game came to life on the team’s second possession, as running back Justin Forsett (150 yards, 27 carries) picked up a pair of first downs — part of a streak of four straight plays that gained 10 or more yards — and helped propel a drive down to the Pittsburgh 9-yard line.
Baltimore then deviated from the script, surprisingly handing the ball to Michael Campanaro, who was carted off the field in the fourth quarter, on an end-around for a touchdown to give Baltimore a 7-3 lead late during the first quarter.
But the Ravens, who had not scored first all season after doing so 10 times last year, had been beaten to the punch again.
Steelers defensive lineman Stephon Tuitt took down Flacco for his first sack in 124 dropbacks, setting up a Pittsburgh drive that featured running back Le’Veon Bell (129 yards, 22 carries, touchdown) running the ball four times in eight plays. The drive set up Scobee’s 45-yard field goal.
Bell stopped the Ravens’ streak of not allowing a 100-yard rusher at 29 games.
Pittsburgh backup quarterback Michael Vick (19-for-26, 124 yards, one touchdown, four sacks, 95.7 rating) had done a good job managing the Steelers’ offense despite getting flattened by nos tackle Brandon Williams on a five-man rush on the game’s first play.
Pittsburgh thought it had finally put itself over the horizon, out of the Ravens’ sights.
But Baltimore’s season has come suddenly and, clearly, into focus.
Joe Platania has been covering professional football since 1994.
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