How to be an NFL legend in three simple steps:
Catch. Spin. Go.
Tylan Wallace went from a fill-in to an instant superstar Sunday, lifting the Baltimore Ravens to a 37-31 victory over the Rams with a 76-yard punt return.
Wallace was like a tightrope walker in a windstorm, twisting out of four tackles, nearly face-planting before regaining his footing, and finally breaking free down the sideline before leaping sideways into the end zone as if clearing a high-jump bar.
Ravens fans were drenched and delirious, cheering a wild finish to one of the better games of the NFL season, a rain-soaked showdown between one of the AFC’s best teams and the resurgent Rams, who still have a good chance to qualify for the playoffs.
The ending will go down as one of the great moments in Ravens history. Even seen-it-all coach John Harbaugh, a guy who has won a Super Bowl, got so lost in the moment that he forgot to meet Sean McVay at midfield for the customary handshake.
“I ran all the way down there [to the end zone] and I tried to get involved,” Harbaugh said. “I was diving over the top of the pile and everything, and I was fast — I was really fast in my own mind. Jumped around and lost my headset.”
Then he came to his senses.
“Maybe it was the Holy Spirit or something, a small, still voice in my head that said, 'You’ve got to go shake hands with Sean, who’s my friend.' So I ran back and the lactic acid had built up in my legs and I had nothing left. But he was gracious enough to wait for me.”
Dispiriting as the loss was for the Rams, it was also a reminder they are far better than the also-ran that lost four of five games from Weeks 5 through 9.
They came to Baltimore having won three in a row and with a rejuvenated running game powered by Kyren Williams.
Matthew Stafford was surgical with his passes Sunday — carefully protecting the ball by throwing it away when he needed to — and finished with three touchdowns.
Puka Nacua and Cooper Kupp made multiple big plays, and although Aaron Donald didn’t record a sack — he has gotten to 53 different NFL quarterbacks but never Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson — he was in the Ravens’ backfield all day.
In consecutive weeks, the Rams have faced elite defenses, Cleveland and Baltimore, and scored 36 and 31 points.
The most straight-forward path to the playoffs for the Rams is to power through their remaining opponents — home against Washington and New Orleans, then at the New York Giants and San Francisco — and keep their fingers crossed for a collapse by Minnesota, Green Bay or both.
As for the 10-3 Ravens, they became the first AFC team with double-digit victories — Miami has a chance to get there against Tennessee on Monday night — and Jackson improved to 19-1 against NFC opponents.
But in this game, history will remember Wallace, who is in his fourth season and had never returned a punt before this game. He was pressed into action after Pro Bowl returner Devin Duvernay left because of a back injury.
Wallace already had a mistake to live down. In the second quarter, on a Rams punt, he was flagged for lining up in the neutral zone. That gave the Rams a first down, and they wound up scoring a touchdown on the drive.
He appreciated that he didn’t catch too much grief from his coaches after that.
“They were telling me, 'You know, it happens. Penalties happen,’ ” Wallace said. “I appreciate them believing in me to be back there and to make plays for the team.”
Wallace, in his fourth year out of Oklahoma State, doesn’t have blinding speed and, although he drew early comparisons to outstanding former Ravens receiver Steve Smith, had yet to live up to that billing.
But Wallace is a hard-working and well-liked member of the team whose most notable 2023 moment to this point was buying a Mercedes for his mom.
Then came this wet Sunday afternoon when he was determined to atone for his mistake, and had in his head two previous muffed punts by Rams returner Austin Trammell.
“You go back and you see the other team drop one, and you’re kind of like, 'Oh, man,’ ” Wallace said. “But I believe in myself. I believe in what I can do.”
Thirteen seconds later, after as many twists and turns as the game itself had, he made an entire city believe in him too.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.