It was one of the more bizarre sights of the NFL season. On the final play of Sunday’s game in Baltimore, the Ravens were up seven points with 11 seconds left and lined up for a fourth-down punt. When the ball was snapped, Baltimore’s line began a series of "blocks" in which they got their hands on any defender they could find and hung on for dear life. In all, there were probably seven or eight separate holding calls that could have been made. Flags were thrown but were ultimately frivolous — Baltimore won the game on that play and took control of first place in the AFC North. The play was peculiar, successful and, most interesting of all, intentional.
It went down like this: On fourth down with the Ravens backed up deep, punter Sam Koch took the snap at the 10-yard line and ran backward, as most punters would do while leading in a similar situation. (Giving up two points doesn’t matter with so little time left.) It figured Koch would try to kill as much time as possible, take a safety and, if there was still time on the clock as there probably would be, make a free kick that would end the game once the Bengals were stopped. Baltimore put a big wrinkle in that strategy — grabbing, hugging, clinching and tackling anyone and everyone in stripes before they could get to Koch with any time on the clock. They didn’t and Koch was able to milk it down to zeroes before stepping out of bounds, taking the safety and ending the game, 19-14.
What kind of dark magic is this? The game can’t end on a penalty, right? Well, kind of. The game can’t end on a defensive penalty. Since the Ravens were on offense, though, they were able to commit as many fouls as they wanted, however egregious, and run out the clock without sanction. It didn’t matter whether the Bengals accepted or declined said penalties, the game was over regardless.
Intentional penalties to win a game. While legal, the whole thing seems like a loophole, expertly exploited by John Harbaugh and the Ravens coaching staff. The reason a game can’t end on a defensive penalty, obviously, is because cornerbacks or safeties would simply tackle any receiver rather than let the play proceed as normal. This situation had it flipped: The Ravens were essentially playing defense while in punt formation and their fouls had the same effect as if they’d actually been playing defense. They got off on a technicality.
Why don’t we see this effective strategy more often? Because usually teams on offense are taking a knee to run out the clock. Baltimore didn’t have that option because it was fourth down and the clock stops on a change of possession — hence the aborted punt attempt. It was fitting that the game ended with a Ravens special teamer holding the ball. The team’s MVP on Sunday was kicker Justin Tucker, who hit five field goals, including three from beyond 50 yards (all in the first half, an NFL first).
Think of all that could have gone wrong had the Ravens not called for the ol’ all-hold formation. Koch could have fumbled while running out of the end zone. The Bengals could have scored on the free kick, even though it would have been a high pooch designed to ensure a short return. Or, ironically, there could have been a penalty on Baltimore on said free kick, giving the Bengals one untimed down. It was a great decision that minimized the already-minimal risk involved in simply taking the safety.
At least one Harbaugh is having a good weekend.