ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- The call came in from Baltimore Ravens defensive coordinator Don Martindale, and when Marcus Peters heard it in the huddle, he nodded knowingly and excitedly. With the Buffalo Bills trailing by a touchdown and facing a fourth-and-8 from the Ravens' 16-yard-line -- and with 69,134 fans at New Era Field primed for the prospect of overtime to decide Sunday's physical battle between AFC contenders -- Martindale was sending a "Zero" blitz at Josh Allen and daring the second-year quarterback to make Baltimore pay.
This meant that Peters, the 26-year-old cornerback whose 54-day stay with the Ravens has been strewn with highlight-reel gems, would be alone in coverage against speedy wideout John Brown, the Bills' leading receiver. And as Brown, lined up on the right side of the formation, gave a quick fake before darting inside toward the goal line, Peters had plenty of incentive to regulate.
Making a play on the ball would run the Ravens' record to 11-2, clinching a playoff spot and keeping them ahead in the race for the AFC's No. 1 overall seed. It would brighten the spirits of a certain fan who'd traveled across the country to watch Peters: his cousin and fellow Oakland native, Marshawn Lynch, who spent the first three-and-a-half seasons of his storied career with the Bills.
Best of all, if Peters could get the football -- and take it off the field as a souvenir -- he could fulfill the request of his 5-year-old son, Carson, who'd implored him in the days leading up to Sunday's clash, "Daddy, I need a ball!"
Less than half an hour later, as he and his teammates celebrated their 24-17 victory over a pesky Bills team (9-4) that remains in the thick of the AFC playoff hunt, Peters' first words upon being greeted at his locker -- before I'd even asked a question -- were an expression of regret.
"I should have picked that ball," he said, shaking his head for emphasis. "We lined up in the best formation in football, ever -- 'Zero' -- and as I cut across, I thought I could jump in front and get it. If my right arm was free, I think I might have taken the chance, but I knew I could get a hand on it with my left, so that was the smart play.
"But damn -- I owe my baby a football. He gives me goals every week, and he's gonna say something about it, too. But hey, we got a Dub, and I can go back and tell him, 'We're gonna be playing football in January.' "
When Peters reached his left arm over Brown's left shoulder to break up Allen's crisp spiral at the 2-yard line, it was a fitting climax to a game that showcased the impact made by the fifth-year cornerback since he arrived in Baltimore via a mid-October trade with the Los Angeles Rams. Peters had two other passes defensed against the Bills, including a sliding end-zone breakup of Allen's pass to receiver Isaiah McKenzie near the right sideline with 8:24 left in the second quarter.
Peters has been making big plays since his first game with the Ravens, an Oct. 20 road victory over the Seattle Seahawks which featured his 67-yard interception for touchdown of a Russell Wilson pass -- but those magnificent moments don't tell the entire story.
"He's been a game-changer for us, because he helped our flexibility," Martindale explained. "We couldn't be doing what we're doing without it. Everyone sees the talent, but he's a football savant. He's the smartest corner I've ever seen play -- it's unbelievable -- and we're so glad we got him."
Before trading for Peters, the Ravens were feeling the loss of two key edge rushers -- Baltimore legend Terrell Suggs and rising star Za'Darius Smith -- who departed via free agency last March. Martindale, desperate to generate pressure on opposing passers, wanted to blitz more, but with veteran cornerback Jimmy Smith sidelined for six of the season's first seven games with an MCL sprain, he didn't feel comfortable exposing his secondary to so much potential peril.
Now, with Peters and Smith joining cornerback Marlon Humphrey, who is playing at a Pro Bowl level (and who had a terrific breakup of Allen's long third-down throw to Cole Beasley late in the third quarter), Martindale has the luxury of calling games aggressively, and he hasn't disappointed.
When it comes to sending extra pass rushers, "Wink" -- as Martindale is universally known in the Ravens' locker room, an homage to the '70s game show host -- doesn't blink. He blitzed Tom Brady about 50 percent of the time in Baltimore's 37-20 thrashing of the previously unbeaten New England Patriots in early November and, against the far-less-experienced Allen, "hit him with more 'Zeros' than he's had all year."
On that October afternoon when Martindale learned the Ravens had acquired Peters from the Rams for reserve linebacker Kenny Young and a 2020 fifth-round pick, he and some of his fellow coaches literally celebrated in his office. Peters, who was at an Adidas photoshoot during the Rams' off day when he got the news, was momentarily surprised -- a former first-round pick of the Kansas City Chiefs, this was the second time he'd been dealt in his relatively short career -- but he definitely wasn't shook.
"I've come from worse situations than being traded," Peters said. "I've been shot at. I've been jumped. I've been through all that. I've got cousins who played in the NFL -- (quarterback) Josh Johnson has been cut like 13 or 14 times. And I ain't nobody's puppet. I handle my business. I bust my ass in practice, I own it when it's bad and try to support my family.
"It's all about growth, man. The best thing about me is I've got time to grow -- and I'm growing."
During his days with the Chiefs, Peters was portrayed as a high-maintenance player who challenged coaches, both on and off the field. When he arrived in Baltimore, the first words Martindale said to him were, "It takes crazy to coach crazy."
Their connection has been insanely fruitful thus far, and Sunday was no different: Martindale, who called a "Zero" blitz against Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield that clinched a playoff berth for the Ravens in 2018, pulled off the repeat performance thanks to Peters' heady play against Brown.
"Wink's got swag," Peters said. "Wink's got flavor. Wink understands it's gonna take all of us, and he's a tremendous leader. I've got some real tough love for Wink. He believed in me, and belief can go a long way."
Peters' boisterous bravado was on full display against the Bills, though it was a bit toned down from the Monday night late last month, when he returned to face the Rams at the L.A. Coliseum and helped Baltimore produce a 45-6 beatdown of last season's NFC champions. After that game, Peters went after Rams cornerback Jalen Ramsey -- whose impending acquisition from the Jacksonville Jaguars compelled L.A. to preemptively deal Peters to the Ravens -- and the two had to be separated. According to one Baltimore player, Peters called Ramsey a name which, if taken literally, would suggest that Ramsey engaged in the world's oldest profession.
"Marcus, he's a real dude," Jimmy Smith said. "He's very sharp when it comes to the game, and he likes to bring energy and talk that s--- to the other team. When he's out there, it's a different game for us. What Marcus brings is the ability, at any moment, to change the game. It's like having a great return man. And that's really dangerous."
Last February, Peters had a fantastic game against Brady and the Patriots in L.A.'s Super Bowl LIII defeat. It would have seemed far-fetched a couple of months ago, but now -- with the Ravens set to host the New York Jets this Thursday night before closing the regular season against the Browns and Steelers, and the No. 1 seed there for the taking if they can win out -- he can envision a realistic path of returning to the Ultimate Game, this time for an AFC team on the other side of the country.
"That would be sweet," Peters said as he walked up the tunnel leading to the Ravens' team buses. "I'd love to get a better taste in my mouth."
That -- and a football for young Carson -- would pretty much make his winter complete.