While each NFL season is often defined by the Super Bowl and its champion, there is often a game within the folds of a regular season that perfectly encapsulates what the year was all about—its trends, its shortcomings, its stars.
Maybe last year it was one of the dreadful slogs through the officiating doldrums; teams winning and losing thanks to the complete brokenness of reviewable pass interference and general helplessness of an overmatched cadre of referees. Maybe the year prior it was the Rams-Chiefs game with 105 total points, representing the offensive evolution that throttled defensive coordinators across the sport and fundamentally changed the way teams drafted players, hired coaches and took risks.
On Monday night we had the game of 2020, if only because like the year itself, it contained too many wild vacillations, obscure tentacles and no-choice-but-to-laugh moments to digest in one viewing. Too many oddities to run through. Too many bad jokes about things we’ll never know the truth about. The final score, 47–42, a score that has never occurred in the history of the National Football League, was just the beginning. Even the final play, a flitting, drawn-out attempt at multiple laterals by the Browns in a last-ditch comeback effort, swung betting lines across the country, sinking the hearts of anyone who took the Browns at +3 while they watched Cleveland slowly retreat into their own end zone for a safety. It cost at least one poor soul $40,000.
The game featured the best of football’s embrace of analytics (despite the broadcast booth’s continued inability to understand it), the best (and perhaps some of his worst) of Baker Mayfield, the best of Kevin Stefanski as a rising star coach in this league, the best of the Ravens’ coaching staff, who were completely undermanned on defense and elsewhere, the best of Lamar Jackson, who left the game with cramps, received an IV and returned to sling a 44-yard go-ahead touchdown pass on fourth down to an embattled and disgruntled wide receiver and the best of a legendary kicker who drilled a game winner from 55 yards out as if it were a free throw in an empty gymnasium.
The teams’ histories together, Baltimore’s evident lack of magic this season, the Browns’ recent winning streak, Baltimore struggling to forge ahead after a massive COVID-19 outbreak while simultaneously attempting to mount a legitimate playoff comeback that may require it to win all of its remaining games, Cleveland soaking up the prime-time air as a franchise finally relevant in the winter months just baby steps from its first postseason in nearly two decades, all of it created the kind of ideal conditions for the kind of matchup that removes every ounce of collective good from its participants. If we’re lucky, we get one of those a year, where the postgame celebration is a mass of people so joyously or frustratedly zapped that they seem to float off the field without touching the ground. Jackson and Mayfield were operating on another plane for so much of the night, firing footballs into the padding behind the end zone, thumping their chests, screaming and shouting.
And it keeps on giving. There is little doubt that what we saw gave life to the previously middling Ravens, who are talented enough to gate crash an AFC playoff race that has more than its fair share of intrigue as we head into the final weeks of the regular season.
And maybe it gave a little bit of life to all of us who were lucky enough to stick with a game that had a win probability of more than 90% for the Ravens throughout much of the third quarter before a 21-yard touchdown pass to Rashard Higgins cut the score to 34–28. Before Jackson vanished from the sidelines, scurrying up the ramp to the locker room to revive cramping in both his arms and legs. Before a punishing Cleveland touchdown drive that soaked up most of the third quarter put the Browns ahead by a point after trailing by 14. Before Trace McSorley, a sixth-round pick, once Baltimore’s third-string quarterback, converted a third-and-long on the next drive to keep the Ravens on the field just long enough for Jackson to sprint back onto the turf and float that season-altering touchdown. Before the Browns answered right back but left too much time on the clock. Before Justin Tucker gave us the walk-off night cap the game deserved (even if the lot of us were begging for overtime).
While we might end up thinking that most of football being played at all in 2020 was absurd and selfish and wholly against the scientific evidence we do have at the moment, we will probably also remember the Ravens and Browns for taking us out of that harsh reality for just a moment in a few hours of chaotic perfection. It's the strange mental juxtaposition we've been laboring through all season, after all. In a year that taught us to appreciate those windows of beautiful distraction thoroughly, it will be hard to forget.