CINCINNATI -- Without Lamar Jackson, the Baltimore Ravens weren't expected to give the Cincinnati Bengals much of a struggle Sunday night in their wild-card matchup. But things didn't go as expected.
The Bengals did pull through with a 24-17 victory to set up a divisional-round game against the Buffalo Bills, but it was much closer than anticipated.
A 98-yard touchdown return of Tyler Huntley's fumble at the goal line in the fourth quarter proved decisive.
It's never easy against divisional rivals, even when it's supposed to be.
The two AFC North teams met for the second straight week, and the Bengals beat a short-handed Ravens team to celebrate back-to-back division titles. Despite the Ravens playing without Jackson, Cincinnati was pushed to the brink at Paycor Stadium but survived.
Some big plays from key players allowed the defending AFC champions to advance.
Pivotal play: With the Ravens a yard out from taking a lead in the fourth quarter, Cincinnati's defense came up with a massive turnover. As Huntley tried to extend the ball over the goal line for a touchdown, linebacker Logan Wilson punched the ball out of Huntley's grasp. It squirted free and defensive end Sam Hubbard scooped it up for a 98-yard fumble return touchdown, which is the longest in NFL postseason history. It ended up being a 14-point swing and gave the Bengals a 24-17 lead with 11:39 left in the game.
QB breakdown: Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow had some stellar moments. Burrow was 22-of-32 for 209 yards with a touchdown and no interceptions. With his team trailing 10-9 in the third quarter, Burrow completed three straight passes, including one on third-and-9, before the quarterback capped the drive with a 1-yard touchdown run. He also scrambled out of the pocket and found wide receiver Tee Higgins for a 2-point conversion that gave the Bengals a 17-10 lead.
Troubling trend: Cincinnati's offensive line will be a big question mark moving forward. Left tackle Jonah Williams was ruled out of the game with a left knee injury. That leaves Cincinnati without three starting linemen if Williams and right guard Alex Cappa cannot play against Buffalo in the divisional round. Burrow was sacked four times.
Under-the-radar stat: Hubbard's 98-yard touchdown was the first go-ahead fourth-quarter defensive touchdown in a playoff game since the Buffalo Bills' Jeff Burris had a pick-six off the Jacksonville Jaguars' Mark Brunell in the 1996 wild-card round. The previous longest fumble return in the playoffs was 93 yards by Andy Russell in the 1975 divisional playoffs vs. the Baltimore Colts -- meaning the city of Baltimore has been on the wrong side of the two longest fumble returns in NFL postseason history.
The Ravens came one yard from delivering one of their biggest upsets in playoff history and proving to the football world that they can win without Jackson, but Huntley's fumble and the ensuing return proved to be the difference.
Huntley made several big plays to keep the 8-point underdog Ravens in the game. But his two turnovers were costly and led to 10 points. Jackson, who missed his sixth straight game with a knee injury, did not travel with the team to the game.
Describe the game in two words: Another heartbreaker. The season-ending loss followed a familiar, brutal trend for Ravens -- their sixth loss of the season after either having a lead or being tied in the fourth quarter.
Troubling trend: Cornerback Marcus Peters was a liability in his return after missing three games with a calf injury. In the first quarter, Peters' taunting penalty -- he got in the face of Joe Mixon when lying on top of him -- led to Cincinnati's first touchdown. In the third quarter, Peters was called for defensive pass interference on a 2-point try, and he then got beat by Higgins for the conversion, putting the Bengals up 17-10. Peters is a free agent at the end of the season.
Eye-popping NextGen stat: Huntley's 41-yard touchdown pass to Demarcus Robinson in the third quarter was one of the most surprising plays of the game. It was Huntley's first attempt of the game over 10 air yards, and it was Robinson's first deep reception of the season. Robinson got 4.7 yards of separation after faking out Bengals cornerback Eli Apple on a double move. The completion probability was 62.3%.
Under-the-radar stat that matters: The Ravens are 6-1 all-time on the road in the wild-card round. Baltimore was the last remaining NFL team that was undefeated in road wild-card games.