Five thoughts on the Ravens' 16-13 win over the Chicago Bears Sunday at Soldier Field:
A huge game for the Ravens became a tough proposition when Lamar Jackson was sidelined by an illness. Suddenly, it was up to Jackson's backup, Tyler Huntley, to go on the road and deliver a win the Ravens desperately needed as the AFC playoff race heats up. Style points have never mattered less. There was just one plotline: Could the Ravens find some way to get the job done? They were close to not doing it, so close to losing that, honestly, it felt like they did lose when they gave up a late touchdown and trailed by four points. But what followed is the stuff of lore. Huntley's first NFL start ended with him giving the darndest Tom Brady impression as he coolly directed a winning touchdown drive. "Just a spectacular win, the kind of win that takes faith and takes guts," Head Coach John Harbaugh said. It's a major boost to the Ravens' playoff prospects as they remain in first place in the AFC North, but beyond that, it re-emphasizes that, regardless of what they aren't in 2021, the Ravens are deep, resilient and tough, very much a team, as opposed to just one player.
When a team has a star quarterback, as the Ravens do, the backup's primary job is to win a game when an emergency arises. You're lacking emotions if you weren't touched by the pure joy Huntley exhibited after coming through Sunday. He wore a mask in his postgame press conference, but you didn't need to see his face to know he was grinning from ear to ear. And why not? Let's add up the obstacles that were in his way leading up to the final drive. He didn't have his top big-play receiver; Marquise Brown missed the game with a thigh injury. He was sacked six times and hounded all day by a heavy blitz. The Ravens' running backs barely averaged three yards per carry. And hey, let's go farther back. Huntley was undrafted out of college, spent most of 2020 on the Ravens' practice squad and faced a battle for the No. 2 job in training camp. "There were times when it felt like this day wouldn't come," he said. The Ravens made him their No. 2 because they like his arm, his playmaking potential with his legs, and most of all, because of his poise. The latter was the difference when he took the field needing to produce a game-winning drive. "Tyler did a hell of a job; his composure was great," running back Devonta Freeman said.
I'm pleased to report that the final touchdown meant I could delete a paragraph I was concocting about history repeating itself, which was going to be the story of this game, much to the dismay of the Ravens and their fans, until Huntley's heroics. I had a bad feeling from the get-go when veteran quarterback Andy Dalton came on for the Bears in the third quarter after their rookie starter, Justin Fields, was sidelined by a rib injury. The Ravens were ahead by six points and doing a nice job of confusing and bottling up Fields, but Dalton, 34, was a change-of-pace who wouldn't succumb so easily. And of course, he was in the AFC North for years, with the Bengals, and has been known to make plays to break the Ravens' hearts. Incredibly, four years after he threw a touchdown pass from midfield on a fourth-and-12 play to knock the Ravens out of the playoffs, he threw a touchdown pass from midfield on fourth-and-11 that appeared to win the game Sunday. I admit, I started writing "A Handy Andy Nightmare: The Sequel," but I stopped when Huntley quickly moved the offense into scoring range and set up the winning points by running for his life to escape pressure and hurling a 29-yard completion to Sammy Watkins. It was time to rewrite.
You know it hasn't been easy for the Ravens to watch several of their former outside linebackers (aka Matthew Judon) play so well for other teams in 2021 while the Ravens have struggled at times to record sacks and get the pressure they want on quarterbacks. But none of that is a reflection on Tyus Bowser, a starting OLB they re-signed rather than lose. Bowser hasn't been a show-stopper as much as a solid, steady, versatile grinder, which the Ravens are fine with, and he took his game to another level Sunday. With the game scoreless in the second quarter, he forced a fumble on a strip-sack to stop a Chicago drive in Baltimore territory; instead of falling behind, the Ravens took the ball and drove to the first points of the game. He then sacked Dalton on the game's final play before the quarterback could launch a Hail Mary. In a game with a microscopic margin of victory, it mattered that the Bears missed an early field goal, and that Mark Andrews continually moved the chains, and that Jaylon Ferguson got his hand on a punt, and that Tucker, as usual, was better than the other kicker. I could go on and on. But Bowser's performance was right there with the factors that determined the outcome.
Short takes: With Jackson out, Patrick Mekari back at right tackle, tight end Nick Boyle making his 2021 debut and running back Latavius Murray back in the rotation, this was nothing if not a day for the Ravens to pound the ball on the ground. Freeman and Murray only rushed for 81 yards, but their combined 26 carries helped the Ravens win the time of possession battle by more than 17 minutes. That's a recipe for success ... The pressure the Bears mounted on Huntley pretty much eliminated the Ravens' deep passing game, but it resurfaced on the final drive when Rashod Bateman drew a pass interference flag. Bateman's developing knack for drawing flags is helpful, to say the least ... When Harbaugh said, "I don't remember a week like this," you know the Ravens had a tough time dealing with not knowing whether Jackson would play and the injuries that sidelined Brown and cornerbacks Jimmy Smith and Anthony Averett. "Going into the game, there was a lot of not knowing what was going to happen," Marlon Humphrey said. It makes the win that much sweeter.