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John Harbaugh takes the road less traveled

DETROIT -- Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh straddled the line between brilliance and dumb luck Monday night.

The clock showed less than a minute remaining. The Ravens trailed the Detroit Lions by one point and their offense was situated on the far outskirts of place-kicker Justin Tucker's range.

What did Harbaugh do? He decided that the Ravens' best chance to win, and to keep alive their playoff hopes, was to play for one of the longest game-winning field goals in NFL history. So from the Lions' 45-yard line, and to the chagrin of quarterback Joe Flacco, the Ravens ran two safe passes and then a draw on third-and-10 that gained 2 yards.

Out went Tucker -- who moments earlier had emboldened Harbaugh by telling him, "I've got this" -- to attempt a 61-yard field goal. There had been only three instances in league history of a successful go-ahead kick from at least 60 yards with less than a minute remaining in the fourth quarter. It's true that Tucker is the NFL's hottest kicker, but that was secondary to the enormity of the moment.

To salvage a win, Harbaugh needed Tucker to do nothing less than catapult into the league's record book. Tucker made him look brilliant, sneaking the ball inside the right upright for an 18-16 Ravens victory that turned both the AFC and NFC playoff races upside down.

"I was confident," Harbaugh said. "I thought we had a real good shot at it."

If anyone had a shot, of course, it was Tucker. He has the NFL's longest streak of consecutive field goals (33) and had accounted for all 15 of the Ravens' points up until then. He has been accurate from long distance this season, converting six kicks from at least 50 yards. And testing his range before the game, Tucker hit the crossbar from 70 yards -- just missing an ESPN camera perched on it.

As soon as the Ravens moved the ball into Lions territory, Tucker positioned himself close to Harbaugh "just in case he looked my way," he said.

"I wanted him to know, just by looking at me, that he shouldn't have any reservations about sending me out there," Tucker said.

As the Ravens faced third-and-10, Harbaugh asked Tucker, "Are we kicking this or are we going for it [if there is a] fourth-and-10?"

Tucker responded: "I got this," and so the Ravens ran that seemingly head-scratching draw play. It's one thing to have confidence in a hot kicker. It's another to attempt a long kick when you simply run out of time to get closer. But that's an altogether different approach from settling ahead of time for a pressure-packed kick from such an unlikely distance.

After all, there have been only three field goals in the long and winding history of the NFL from the distance (63 yards) that Harbaugh was willing to kick from had the third-down play not gained a yard. There have now been a total of six from at least 61 yards.

As it turned out, Flacco seemed to the feel the same way.

"We probably settled a little bit," he said. "I don't like to do that. We would probably admit to that, that we probably settled a little bit. [But we] had confidence that he was going to hit the kick."

Ravens cornerback Jimmy Smith concurred. "We had complete faith in our team and complete faith he was going to make it," Smith said.

We like to think there is a right and wrong answer for every coaching decision in sports. We obsess over black and white, but in the heat of a playoff race, Harbaugh surveyed the gray in between. He put statistics and probability aside and made a judgment based on knowing his players and their potential for maximum performance.

The Ravens hadn't scored a touchdown in the game. The Lions' defense had been getting after Flacco, who took a helmet to the knee in the fourth quarter, and in all reality Tucker was Harbaugh's best offensive weapon.

It helps that Tucker is a delightfully even-keeled personality who felt compelled, first and foremost, to joke Monday night about his impact on fantasy football playoffs. He doesn't appear to be a person easily affected by pressure.

"I'm glad to come through of course for my reality team but also for all my fantasy owners," he said amid a flurry of postgame interviews.

Tucker will get plenty of attention in the coming days, but to me it was Harbaugh who faced the most intense pressure. Tucker wouldn't have been the goat had the ball fallen short or sailed wide. Harbaugh would have taken the criticism for his endgame approach. Brilliance? Dumb luck? It worked, and I suppose that's the only thing that matters.