OWINGS MILLS, Md. (AP)The Baltimore Ravens were a yard away from taking the lead in the fourth quarter at Cincinnati.

For a moment, all the drama surrounding Lamar Jackson’s injury and his future seemed secondary.

Then the ball came loose, the Bengals returned it for a touchdown – and the Ravens headed into an offseason that will put this proud franchise to the test.

Tyler Huntley’s fumble at the goal line derailed Baltimore’s upset bid, and the Ravens lost to the Bengals 24-17 in their playoff opener Sunday night.

Huntley was playing because of the knee injury from early December that ultimately ended Jackson’s season.

Jackson’s rookie contract now expires, and the big question in Baltimore – and around the league – is whether he and the Ravens can finally reach a long-term deal.

”You can’t let a guy like him go,” defensive lineman Calais Campbell said Monday.

So much of what has made Baltimore a stable, successful organization was on display against the Bengals. The Ravens were sizable underdogs, playing without their star quarterback, and yet their defense helped them stay in the game and Huntley moved the ball well at times.

In the end, however, it was one calamitous play by Huntley – his risky attempt to reach the ball over the goal line on third down – that swung the game.

Huntley lost the ball and Sam Hubbard returned the fumble 98 yards to put Cincinnati up 24-17 with 11:39 remaining.

Although Huntley performed gamely, it’s easy to wonder what the Ravens would have been capable of with a healthy Jackson. His contract situation didn’t seem like too much of a distraction early in the season, but once he was hurt, there was no shortage of speculation around the football world about why he wasn’t returning and whether he should.

”Anybody who has played this game, they should know how hard it is to go out there and compete,” Campbell said. ”If you can’t protect yourself, then it’s pointless to be out there. If you can’t go out there and go full speed, it’s pointless to be out there. I’ve played through plenty of injuries, but the first thing I do when I’m going through an injury is making sure that I can’t hurt myself more.”

Coach John Harbaugh initially said it wasn’t a season-ending type of injury. He later said injuries are hard to predict – and that’s why he doesn’t comment much on timetables. Harbaugh said last week that Jackson was working hard to come back but avoided elaborating.

Jackson eventually tweeted that the injury was a PCL sprain and said the knee was unstable. He said he’d like to be on the field with his teammates but couldn’t give 100%.

Offensive tackle Ronnie Stanley had a unique perspective on Jackson’s injury. Stanley has been battling ankle problems since 2020, but he managed to start 11 games this season.

”I never once questioned Lamar’s tactics when it came to his body,” Stanley said. ”He knows what’s going on in his body more than we all know. I felt the same about my situation.”

Now the Ravens are at a fork in the road. Eventually, they’ll have to figure out a way to keep Jackson long term, or they’ll have to figure out a way to win without him. Either path has its share of challenges, from the looks of it.

Baltimore could choose to bring Jackson back for next season on the franchise tag, but then both team and player would be spending another year under this cloud of uncertainty about his future.

WATKINS WALKS IT BACK

Receiver Sammy Watkins downplayed his comments to the Washington Post prior to last weekend’s game, in which he said he hoped someone would convince Jackson to play.

”I was just basically saying, and being sarcastic, like, `Shoot, I want him out there,”’ Watkins said. ”But if a guy’s hurt and he can’t play, then he shouldn’t be out there.”

”He said something to me the other day, we laughed about it,” Watkins added. ”It was all fun and games.”

RED ZONE WOES

The Ravens were one of the worst teams in the NFL in red zone offense this season, and that’s a big reason they were eliminated. Three times against Cincinnati, they had first-and-goal from the 3-yard line or closer, and they managed only a touchdown, a field goal and Huntley’s turnover from those chances.

OFFSEASON PRIORITIES

Aside from Jackson’s future, the big question for the Ravens this offseason is whether they can surround their quarterback with better receiving options. Rashod Bateman and Devin Duvernay, their top two wideouts at the beginning of the season, both went down with foot injuries.

No wide receiver caught more than 48 passes for Baltimore this season, and none even reached the 500-yard mark in receiving.

Follow Noah Trister at https://twitter.com/noahtrister

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