After bright start, Ravens shrivel in light of postseason

Ravens Extra

January 14, 2007|By JOHN EISENBERG

It was going to be a year in which the Ravens turned back the clock to their Super Bowl season. That's what everyone around here had come to believe - with reason, it seemed.

And come to think of it, the Ravens did conjure memories of an earlier season in their 15-6 loss to the Indianapolis Colts yesterday: They looked a lot like the Ravens of 2005, when their offense couldn't carry its weight, their defense yielded just enough to lose and they finished 6-10.

Those weren't the days, that's for sure. But the earmarks of that awful season - penalties, turnovers, a growing sense of dread - haunted the Ravens at the worst possible time, with the Irsays across the line of scrimmage, a trip to the AFC title game on the line and Baltimore all but hyperventilating at the prospect of victory.

The big dream failed to materialize for all sorts of reasons, defensive as well as offensive.

Sure, the offense deserves the brunt of the blame for generating just two field goals and generally faltering in the playoff heat. Other than the scoring chance Ravens quarterback Steve McNair threw away with an interception at the goal line in the second quarter, the offense never passed the Colts' 33-yard-line.

But the NFL's top-ranked defense also didn't play its best. Even though it kept Peyton Manning and the Colts' high-scoring offense out of the end zone - no mean feat - it gave up too many plays that enabled the Colts to maintain possession of the ball and control of the game.

Before yesterday, Ravens opponents had converted barely more than a quarter of their third downs into firsts, but the Colts converted 42 percent yesterday (eight of 19). Each success whittled away at the notion that the Ravens' defense was infallible. It wasn't yesterday.

To drive home the point, the Colts kept the ball for more than seven minutes in the fourth quarter when the Ravens were just six points behind and itching to get the ball back. The Ravens had engineered their share of such stake-in-the-heart drives this season, but now it was the Colts' turn. They converted three third downs into firsts, kept the ball for more than seven minutes and kicked a game-clinching field goal with 23 seconds left - hardly the way the proud Ravens' defense wanted to go out.

"It was tough. They executed. We didn't," Ravens safety Ed Reed said.

The defense also failed to generate one of its trademark game-changing turnovers. Manning didn't have a great game but astutely limited any damage. Reed had a couple of interceptions, but one was like a punt and neither led to points. Both times, the ensuing Ravens possession also ended with an interception.

Basically, the Colts' offense kept the Ravens' defense from controlling the game. But at least the Ravens' defense generally played well enough to give the team a chance. The same couldn't be said of the Ravens' offense. It was downright ineffectual.

What happened? For starters, the Colts' defense played exceptionally well. It limited Jamal Lewis to 53 rushing yards and repeatedly put the Ravens in third-down situations. Then - and this was the decisive aspect of the game - it took away the Ravens' longer pass routes on those third downs. McNair repeatedly had to dump the ball off for a lot less yardage than he needed. Time to punt.

The crowd became increasingly restless as that happened again and again, and Ravens receiver Derrick Mason complained after the game that he wasn't given the chance to run longer routes and get open for the first down.

"We didn't threaten their defensive backs," said Mason, who caught just two passes for 16 yards. "Just give me an opportunity to get by them and then let the chips fall where they may."

But Ravens tight end Todd Heap didn't blame the third-down play-calling. He credited the Colts' defense.

"I'd say it was pretty good coverage by them," Heap said. "Obviously you want to get the ball to the guys past the first-down line. But they did a good job of taking that away."

And when the Ravens did move the ball, they inevitably were stopped by penalties (six) or turnovers (four).

The last thing they expected was to lay an egg in January after working so hard to win the AFC North and secure a first-round bye. But one flat performance offset everything.

The obvious lesson is that it's hard to win the Super Bowl. The Ravens who did so six years ago weren't measurably better than this season's team, but they came through when it mattered. They avoided the ill-timed clunker.

This season's Ravens thought they could stage a reprise of that drama, but instead, they forgot their lines, the curtain came crashing down, and the crowd filed out quietly.

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