Justin Tucker had made field goals to win the AFC championship game and give the Ravens a cushion in the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl. He was the most accurate kicker in NFL history, already talked about as the rare specialist worthy of selection to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
He didn’t need a signature moment, but he had a chance to create one as he lined up to kick a 66-yard field goal at Detroit’s Ford Field on the afternoon of Sept. 26, 2021.
The Ravens will play the Lions again Sunday. The last time they did, Tucker put his stamp on football history.
His field goal set a record and handed the Ravens a victory. More than that, it gave the New York Times Magazine and “60 Minutes” a hook as they lined up to profile Tucker, proclaiming him the greatest ever at his unusual trade.
“Look, I’d be lying to you if I said I didn’t put a lot of value on that particular kick,” Tucker said Thursday. “It was a special moment for all of us to share. Two years removed, I can look back on that fondly, more than anything because the ball happened to bounce the right way off the crossbar.”
The Ravens were supposed to handle the winless Lions, who’d given up 76 points over their first two games, with ease. They took a 16-7 lead on Tucker’s 32-yard field goal at the end of the third quarter.
But the Lions answered, driving 75 yards for a touchdown to cut the lead to 16-14 midway through the fourth. Then, they intercepted Lamar Jackson and drove another 62 yards to set up Ryan Santoso’s go-ahead field goal with 1:04 left.
Two sacks and an incompletion later, the Ravens were in desperate straits, facing fourth-and-19 from their own 16-yard line. Jackson had to pull a magic trick just to give Tucker a chance.
“I remember we had to get that first down,” Jackson said. “Sammy made a great catch. He could have went out of bounds, [but he] got more yards and went out of bounds to make it easier for ‘Tuck.’”
That would be wide receiver Sammy Watkins, whose clutch 36-yard gain moved the ball to Detroit’s 48-yard line.
“We were looking at fourth-and-19, and I’m still warming up on the sideline,” Tucker remembered. “Because I knew without a doubt in my mind, ‘We’re going to convert this and go and kick the game-winner.’”
Tucker had made a 61-yard field goal to beat the Lions eight years earlier on “Monday Night Football,” so he had reason to be confident. He had made longer kicks in practice and warmups, many of them. “But I just physically wasn’t feeling 100%,” he recalled. “I was probably closer to 60%.”
He has recounted his thought process heading into the 66-yard attempt. His routine — lining up the kick with his hand, making the sign of the cross on his chest, cocking his right leg when he reached launch position — was familiar. But he improvised, jogging faster and swinging his hip more violently as he approached contact, trying to generate greater power.
His teammates looked on, apprehensive but hardly hopeless.
“I believe I knew ‘Tuck’ was going to make it,” Jackson said. “Like, it was a no-brainer.”
The ball soared toward the uprights, dead center as Tucker’s kicks so often are.
“It bounces off the crossbar and it’s good!” CBS announcer Greg Gumbel proclaimed joyously. “Hahaha … Oh my goodness! Oh my goodness!”
Lions coach Dan Campbell gave his head a resigned half-shake. Ravens coach John Harbaugh jogged onto the field looking dazed. Several very large Ravens hoisted Tucker in jubilee.
“Honestly I try not to go there,” Campbell told reporters this week when asked how he remembers the kick. “Of course, you have a flashback from time to time.”
Over the ensuing two years, many new acquaintances have asked Tucker to revisit that moment.
“It comes up pretty frequently,” he said.
He had a shot to best himself by a yard last year in Jacksonville. His kick was right-center but a few rotations short.
“Physically, I was feeling pretty good,” he said of the 67-yard attempt. “Once you’re getting into the sixties and beyond, so many things, when added up together, can take away from the distance you can get. I struck that one really well, but I might’ve left it too high and left it more susceptible to the breeze in the stadium. The footing wasn’t perfect. Everything’s gotta be just right.”
He’ll never put a limit on what he and his partners in the Ravens kicking unit might achieve, but for him, it’s not about a magic number as much as it is solving the problems — wind, temperature, field conditions, his form on a given day — presented by each attempt. He loves the Detroit kick as a tribute to resourcefulness — “We found a way to get the ball to go just far enough” — not perfection.
“I would say the idea of what the range could be has always kind of been there,” Tucker said. “To make it a reality is a little bit of a different thing.”
Lions at Ravens
Sunday, 1 p.m.
TV: Ch. 45
Radio: 97.9 FM, 101.5 FM, 1090 AM
Line: Ravens by 3