BALTIMORE — The Ravens began Sunday with enough players unavailable because of injuries or illness to field a starting offense and defense. That group included only mildly notable players, though, just — deep breath — their star quarterback, Lamar Jackson; two Pro Bowl cornerbacks; and four other members of the secondary, three of whom joined the Covid-19 reserve list last week; their All-Pro left tackle; their starting right tackle; two top running backs; and two starting defensive linemen. A lot of other guys, too.
The remaining Ravens — who may or may not have included the bartender from Pickles Pub, a couple of parking attendants and any purple-clad fans who could be recruited while strolling Eutaw Street in the early-afternoon chill — were tasked with thwarting the juggernaut masquerading as the Green Bay Packers.
Bless their hearts, the Ravens tried. They really, truly did. Nearly won, too. The difference between astounding victory and an excruciating 31-30 defeat on Sunday measured 2 yards. That was the distance separating Baltimore from a go-ahead 2-point conversion with 42 seconds remaining, after Coach John Harbaugh eschewed a point-after-touchdown attempt that could have tied the score and sent the game to overtime.
Faced with a similar choice two weeks ago in Pittsburgh, Harbaugh went for it, down a point with 12 seconds remaining, but a pass to Mark Andrews fell incomplete and the Ravens lost. On Sunday, Tyler Huntley — playing in Jackson’s stead — rolled right, threw toward Andrews, and Packers safety Darnell Savage swooped in to knock it away. The Ravens, who had trailed by 14 points with less than five minutes remaining, lost by 2 yards and 1 point.
“Both of those cases, that gave us the best chance to win,” Harbaugh said, referencing the 20-19 loss at Pittsburgh. “Because we didn’t win doesn’t make it not true.”
The Ravens (8-6) are one of the more analytics-savvy organizations in the N.F.L., often going for 2 points — or for a fourth-down conversion — in mathematically defensible moments that might seem counterintuitive. In his explanation, Harbaugh did not cite any specific numbers, but said he felt the Ravens had a better chance to win, or at least go ahead, by going for 2 on the final play instead of tying the score and giving the ball back to Aaron Rodgers and the Packers with two timeouts remaining.
Rodgers threw three touchdown passes on Sunday to tie Brett Favre’s franchise record of 442.
“That was the decision,” Andrews said, emphasizing the third syllable. “I don’t think there’s anything else. I told Coach I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Green Bay (11-3) retained control over the N.F.C.’s No. 1 seed and the conference’s lone first-round bye, clinching the N.F.C. North to become the first team this season to earn a playoff berth. The Ravens — who topped the A.F.C. as recently as two weeks ago and their division entering Sunday — were left to ponder the unthinkable. Their third consecutive loss, coupled with Cincinnati’s victory at Denver, dropped Baltimore out of the A.F.C. playoffs with three games left.
“It’s easy to get down as a team, but there’s a belief in this locker room, there’s a belief in this organization,” Andrews said, “that we’re going to be able to do great things no matter who they put out there.”
By this late stage of the season, no team is immune from attrition or, especially, the Covid-19 scourge that has clobbered the N.F.L. and the rest of the country. The spread of the Omicron variant forced more than 130 players onto their teams’ Covid-19 reserve lists in the past week. In the past four days alone, the Ravens put four players — cornerbacks Jimmy Smith and Chris Westry, receiver Sammy Watkins and safety Chuck Clark — on the list, running their total to five.
Although Baltimore is unequivocally a better team with Jackson at quarterback, Huntley — undrafted in 2020 out of Utah and, like Jackson, mobile and elusive and strong-armed — commanded the offense with aplomb, completing 28 of 40 passes for 215 yards and accounting for four touchdown scores.
“A lot of question marks go up in the air of, if this offense can still run without him,” the Ravens rookie receiver Rashod Bateman said last week, before referencing Huntley by his jersey number. “But I think 2 comes in and proves to us that we’re not just a one-man show. We’re a team, and we can still operate at a high level.”
With Jackson, who sprained his ankle last week at Cleveland, watching and tutoring Huntley from the sideline, the Ravens battered Green Bay’s defense for 178 yards and two touchdowns across their first three drives, then scored twice within a 4-minute-5-second span late in the fourth quarter to set up Harbaugh’s decision.
Under Harbaugh, the Ravens have cultivated a certain identity: Feisty and resilient, they tend to play lots of close games, regardless of their personnel. All season, the Ravens have teetered on that boundary, and it may be unsustainable to endure so many tight outcomes and win them all.
Baltimore lost its opener in overtime and these last three games by a total of 4 points. It also defeated Kansas City, whose running back lost a fumble in go-ahead field-goal range, stunned Detroit on a 66-yard field goal as time expired, and overcame a 19-point deficit against Indianapolis in less than 19 minutes, then won in overtime.
It is a testament to the jumbled, delightful mess known as the A.F.C. North, where all four teams sit within a game of each other, that the Ravens still have, in theory, a chance to win the division.
They play at Cincinnati on Sunday before finishing the season with consecutive home games, against the Los Angeles Rams and the Pittsburgh Steelers. That is a formidable closing stretch, and though the percentages might not seem in the Ravens’ favor, they haven’t been deterred by the math yet, and certainly won’t be now.