John Harbaugh’s fourth-down gamble costs Baltimore Ravens a win — and maybe home field

Marcus Peters was irate with John Harbaugh after the Baltimore Ravens coach's fourth-down gamble failed vs. the Buffalo Bills.

Let it be said up top that we love coaches like the Baltimore Ravens’ John Harbaugh. He knows the numbers. He trusts in numbers. He follows the numbers. And he defends the numbers even when the numbers fail him.

But Harbaugh at some point needs to understand that the safe play is the right play. Will Sunday’s ultimate backfire — when Harbaugh’s aggressiveness directly contributed to the Ravens’ 23-20 loss to the Buffalo Bills — be the turning point? Perhaps. But it sure didn’t sound like it after the game.

Drama with Baltimore Ravens, John Harbaugh

For those that didn’t watch the best game of the 1 p.m. slate, here’s a quick recap:

The Ravens raced out to a 17-point lead, but as was the case against the Miami Dolphins two weeks ago, couldn’t make it hold up. The Bills came charging back to tie it at 20-20 with 3:26 left.

But Lamar Jackson rallied his team with a double-digit-play drive that took nearly the entire fourth quarter. He moved Baltimore from its own 5 to inside the Buffalo 5 before it stalled.

On fourth-and-goal from the 2, most coaches would take the points and the lead and ask his defense to make one more stop. But Harbaugh is famous for going for the win — and did so again Sunday. He trusted Jackson to get him the two yards needed.

That was a mistake. Jackson was picked off by Jordan Poyer in the end zone, the Bills marched the length of the field and Tyler Bass kicked the game-winning field goal on the final play of the game.

But before that final play, the frustrations of one prominent Ravens defender boiled over. Defensive back Marcus Peters was incensed (presumably by Harbaugh’s game management) and screamed at his coach until Ravens staffers separated them.

“We’re on the same page,” Harbaugh insisted after the game. “We have an honest relationship. I love Marcus Peters. I hope he still loves me.”

Harbaugh explains fourth-down decision

First, let’s give Harbs a little credit. His decision was not based purely on impulse. It was calculated. And at least one computer model says it was the right call — but just barely.

The 4th down decision bot Twitter account — which is managed by Ben Baldwin, a contributor to the Athletic — determined going for the touchdown gave the Ravens a 65% chance of winning, while kicking the field goal with 4:15 left gave the Ravens a 63% chance to win.

And Harbaugh’s logic, as he explains here, makes some sense:

“I felt like it gave us the best chance to win the game. Because seven [points], if they go down the field and score — and I think we’ll get a stop — but the worst thing that can happen is you’re in overtime. But you kick a field goal there, it’s not a three-down game anymore. It’s a four-down game. You’re putting them out there, you’re putting your defense at a disadvantage because they’ve got four downs to convert all the way down the field and a chance again to score seven. You lose the game on a touchdown.

“And then the other thing you think is they get the ball at the 2-yard line. We’re very confident in our defense. Defense’s ability to stop them with the ball at the 2-yard line. We’ve got them backed up if we don’t get it. It didn’t turn out that way unfortunately and we lost the game. Hindsight, you can take the points. But if you look at it analytically, [you can] understand why we did it.”

Harbaugh risks losing confidence of locker room

Here’s the problem with this: Athletes aren’t robots. They love aggressiveness — when it works.

But when it doesn’t, it’s really difficult to disprove a negative. Defensive players believe they can keep the opposition out of the end zone (which the Ravens did, albeit barely).

If Harbaugh had kicked the field goal, the players believe, the worst-case scenario is overtime. By not taking the points, that wasn’t an option.

And with just 17 regular-season games, one tactical mistake could mean the difference between hosting playoff games and not making the playoffs at all.

The Ravens with a win would’ve entered Week 5 atop the AFC North and tied with Miami for the best record in the AFC. Instead, they weren’t even among the top 7 seeds after the 1 p.m. window. The Ravens are now just the second team in NFL history to lose two games in which they led by 17 or more points in the season’s first four weeks.

“If we executed, made a touchdown, that wouldn’t even be a question,” Jackson said after the game. “Nobody would be disappointed. Next time we’ll get it.”

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