Lamar Jackson might've been the last of the first-round quarterbacks to get drafted, he might've been the last of the first-round quarterbacks to start a game, he might not be in the running for Offensive Rookie of the Year, but he's the only rookie quarterback going to the playoffs. Jackson, , is bound for the playoffs on the hottest team in football in a league where peaking at the right time can be all that matters.
On Sunday, Jackson -- the final pick of the first round -- and the Ravens held off the always dangerous Baker Mayfield -- the top overall pick of the draft -- and the Browns for a thrilling 26-24 win that came down to a final do-or-die fourth-down play. The Ravens, who sat at 4-5 heading into their Week 10 bye, which is when they made the move away from Joe Flacco and to Jackson, are going to the playoffs as the one true king in the AFC North after finishing the season on a 6-1 tear. The Steelers, despite beating the Bengals on Sunday in a nail-biter of their own, have been vanquished.
For the first time since 2012, when they won the Super Bowl, the Ravens have captured the AFC North.
The Ravens, as has been the case ever since Jackson took over as the starter, ran the ball down their opponent's throat. As a team, the Ravens piled up 296 rushing yards on 47 attempts, averaging 6.3 yards per rush. Jackson rushed for 90 yards on 20 carries, but it was Kenneth Dixon who led the way with 117 yards on 12 carries while Gus Edwards had 76 yards on 12 carries.
In the first half, the Browns had no solutions to the Ravens' run-heavy approach. The Ravens scored on their first four drives for 20 points. And the Browns' offense couldn't consistently move the ball against the Ravens' top-ranked defense. The Ravens -- specifically, Jimmy Smith -- picked off Mayfield twice in the first half. They would pick him off one more time in what ended up being the most important play of the game.
At halftime, the Ravens led 20-7. But the game was anything but comfortable. On the other side of the break, Mayfield hooked up with Jarvis Landry for a touchdown that got the Browns right back into it. The Ravens answered with a field goal to take a nine-point lead heading into the fourth quarter. They had the Browns exactly where they wanted them. It was up to their top-ranked defense and run-heavy offense to hold off the Browns over the final 15 minutes. It's a situation this team, as currently constructed, is built for.
The Browns got a field goal early in the fourth quarter to turn it into a one-score game. Even still, with the Steelers involved in their own close game against the Bengals, the Ravens had to like their chances heading into the final minutes of the season.
The situation tightened. A few minutes later, the Steelers took a lead over the Bengals. The Ravens responded with a field goal to take another nine-point lead. But the Browns cut the lead, this time to two points with just over three minutes to go. Meanwhile, the Steelers took a three-point lead with under two minutes remaining in their game. The Browns forced a stop at the two-minute warning. Moments later, the Steelers sealed their win. They'd done their part.
The Ravens, leading by two with two minutes to go, needed to win to make the playoffs. At Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, the Steelers players and fans remained in place, watching on the jumbotron as crunch time in Baltimore unfolded.
It all came down to Mayfield, who began with the ball at the 26-yard line with 1:49 remaining against the Ravens' vaunted defense. A game-winning drive wouldn't just knock the Ravens out of the playoffs. It'd also add to his growing legend. It'd make him the frontrunner for Offensive Rookie of the Year. All he needed was a field goal. It was well within reach.
He made magic happen outside the pocket on second down as ex-Ravens first rounder Breshad Perriman came down with an awesome grab right in front of his former team's sideline.
Two plays later, Landry came down with an incredible catch that was initially ruled incomplete until an automatic review changed the call on the field to a completed pass. The comeback appeared to be happening.
JUIIIIIIIICCCCCCEEEE! 🥤 pic.twitter.com/c2ylCoLJu5— Cleveland Browns (@Browns) December 31, 2018
Looks like a catch to me pic.twitter.com/GNcqfpujAK— Michael Shamburger (@mshamburger1) December 31, 2018
The game came down to a fourth-and-10 from the 39-yard line. Instead of trying a 56-yard field goal with a kicker who'd already missed one kick earlier in the game, the Browns kept their offense on the field. The Ravens sent the house after the rookie. With pressure bearing down on him, Mayfield threw off his back foot toward his target cutting over the middle of the field. The ball never reached its intended target. C.J. Mosley, in the process of being blocked at the line of scrimmage, intercepted the pass and clinched the division for the Ravens.
A year ago, the Ravens' season ended in heartbreak.
This year, it ended in jubilation.
At Heinz Field, the Steelers watched their playoff dreams die.
Two months ago, it seemed unthinkable the Ravens could ever get to this point. But here they are, division champions.
The Ravens don't appear to be a one-and-done kind of team either. Instead, they're the kind of team nobody wants to face this time of the year. They've got one of the best defenses in football and a running game that's difficult to stop over the course of fourth quarters. Their 6-1 record since making a midseason change at quarterback has them peaking at the perfect moment in the calendar. Flacco might not be an important piece of this team anymore, but he of all people understands that the NFL isn't won by the best team in football from September to November. It's all about getting hot at the right exact moment -- with the 2012 Ravens, when Flacco went absolute bonkers during a Super Bowl run, serving as the perfect example. It's 2018, and the Ravens are one of the most dangerous teams in football with a run-oriented offense, a great defense, and a developmental rookie quarterback.
Browns late-half misery
The Browns trailed by 13 points at halftime. The deficit was that big because of an officiating mistake, a missed opportunity, and a missed field goal, all of which occurred in the final two minutes of the half. Everything that could go wrong did go wrong for the Browns.
With just under two minutes remaining in the first half, the Ravens led 20-7 and were on the verge of blowing out the Browns. On third-and-goal from the 1-yard line, Jackson went over the pile and extended the ball outward, but he lost control of the ball. Just as the Browns scooped the fumble and started running the other way for what would've been an easy touchdown, the officials blew the play dead and ruled that Jackson breached the goal line. However, a review determined that Jackson never extended the ball into the end zone.
The ball was awarded to the Browns at the 7-yard line, but the officials couldn't credit the Browns with a touchdown they deserved because they blew the play dead prematurely.
But the officiating blunder shouldn't have mattered, because on the Browns' first play, Mayfield found Landry streaking down the middle of the field with no one around him. It should've been another 93-yard touchdown. Instead, the ball clanged off Landry's helmet. The Browns punted. They got the ball back one more time and thanks to a huge throw by Mayfield, moved the ball into field-goal range. But on the final play of the first half, Greg Joseph missed a 46-yard field goal.
And that's why the Browns trailed by 13 points at halftime.
Reminder: They went on to lose by two points.
Gregg Williams' fourth-quarter mistakes
Under interim coach Gregg Williams, the Browns went 5-3 and generally looked both competent and competitive, two attributes we don't normally associate with the Browns. According to CBS Sports NFL Insider Jason La Canfora, Williams hasBut he made two critical mistakes in the fourth quarter that might hurt his candidacy.
In the fourth quarter, the Ravens clung to a six-point lead. On third down, the Ravens appeared to come up a yard short of a first down near midfield. But after a measurement, the officials granted the Ravens a fresh set of downs. Williams didn't challenge the spot. The Ravens went on to kick a field goal to extend their lead to nine points. Spot challenges are always difficult to win, but given the context, it would've been worth the risk. The runner appeared to be short of the line to gain.
Later in fourth quarter, when the Browns trailed by nine points, Williams didn't challenge what could've been a touchdown catch by David Njoku. Instead, he called a timeout, even though timeouts were incredibly valuable to the Browns at that point in the game.
Gregg Williams saw a would-be Njoku catch in the end zone ruled incomplete. Called timeout instead of using a challenge with 90 seconds of challengeable time left. I don’t know how coaches coach— Bill Barnwell (@billbarnwell) December 31, 2018
On the next play, the Browns scored. But that shouldn't absolve Williams of his mistake.
Williams could've challenged the play, which would've stopped the clock and still served the same purpose as a timeout with the added bonus of potentially winning the challenge. Or he could've just ran another play from the 1-yard line without delay. Instead, he burned a timeout when he didn't need to in situation where timeouts held tremendous value.
It's not why the Browns lost. But it certainly didn't help them either.
Mayfield breaks rookie record
Mayfield didn't get the win that would've added to his legend, but he did get a rookie record that should aid him in his pursuit of Offensive Rookie of the Year. With three touchdown passes, Mayfield set the NFL record for the most touchdown passes during a rookie season (27), breaking the record previously held by both Peyton Manning and Russell Wilson.
Turnovers, however, spoiled Mayfield's performance. He threw three interceptions in an up-and-down outing, finishing 23 of 42 for 376 yards and a 79.1 passer rating
On the opening series of the game, Mayfield jammed a ball toward Antonio Callaway, who was blanketed in coverage by Smith. The pass was picked, which led to three Ravens points.
Mayfield bounced back. On the next series, Mayfield converted a third down with a 38-yard downfield strike to Callaway near the sideline. He followed that up with a 28-yard touchdown to Perriman.
The Browns led 7-3.
His second pick went to Smith again:
Early in the third quarter, he tied the rookie record with a touchdown to Landry that cut the deficit to six.
One more look at the nifty play fake:
In the fourth quarter, he broke the record with a touchdown that brought the Browns to within two.
That's the closest the Browns would get, though. Mayfield's game and season ended with an interception.
Ravens offense runs wild
The Browns' defense had no solutions to the Ravens' run-heavy offense. They were gouged for 463 total yards. In addition to his 90 rushing yards, Jackson completed 14 of 24 passes for 179 yards and a 81.8 passer rating.
After Mayfield's opening pick, the Ravens promptly faced a fourth-and-1 from their own 48. John Harbaugh kept the offense on the field and was rewarded with a first down via Jackson's legs. A few plays later, they kicked a field goal to get the scoring started.
Down 7-3 after the Browns got on the board, Jackson put the Ravens back ahead with his legs.
The Ravens' next series ended with another Jackson touchdown to push their lead to 10, which capped a six-play, 77-yard dive that included five straight running plays that gained 70 yards.
From that point on, the Ravens relied on the always reliable Justin Tucker, who scored their final nine points of the game. He made all four of his field goals. And it's worth noting that if roles had been reversed on that final fourth down, the Ravens likely would've sent out Tucker for a long field goal instead of going for a fourth-and-10 in a two-point game.
Tucker gives the Ravens an edge heading into the postseason.
The Browns head into the offseason full of optimism for the first time in forever. Their season is over, but they exceeded expectations in 2018. Mayfield looks like a legitimate franchise changer, and their defense, led by former No. 1 pick Myles Garrett, should be feared across the league. As a result, their coaching vacancy should be among the most attractive openings this offseason -- if not the most attractive opening.
The Ravens, meanwhile, are set to begin their postseason journey. They'll host the Chargers on Sunday.
Feel free to relive the game with our live-blog below