The Ravens have every right to spend this idle weekend savoring Thursday night's solid performance against the San Francisco 49ers, but they aren't going to get where they want to go if they can't get one yard when it counts.
Yes, I'm about to do a little nit-picking here while everybody else ponders the downhill portion of their regular-season schedule and wonders if they can stay focused long enough to win out and secure home-field advantage in the playoffs.
That's a fair question, of course, considering that the AFC North title might be a foregone conclusion and the Ravens might have the stand-alone best record in the conference right now if they had taken care of business in their first-half encounters with the kind of teams that lie ahead. But this season ultimately will be measured by how they perform in the playoffs, which is why it's so important for them to start bullying opponents in short-yardage and prime red zone situations.
There really is no excuse for a team that has Ray Rice, bruising Ricky Williams and one of the top fullbacks in the league, Vonta Leach, to settle for a field goal after pushing the ball inside the 1-yard line on first down. But that's exactly what happened after the Ravens took advantage of a 50-yard pass interference penalty in the second quarter of Thursday night's game to get in position for a tie-breaking score.
The decision to run outside right tackle against the quick 49ers defense left the Ravens with a third down at the five and Joe Flacco was tackled for no gain on an apparent quarterback draw to set up the chip shot field goal by Billy Cundiff.
No big disaster. The three points still looked like a gift after the long penalty wiped out an interception, but the Ravens are likely to regret leaving four points on the field in that kind of situation in the postseason.
Presumably, if you fancy yourself a Super Bowl team with a strong running attack, you should be able to get into the end zone with three chances from one yard out.
They have gotten away with that twice this year against top-flight opponents. The Ravens had first and goal at the 1 at the end of their opening drive against the Steelers in Week 9 and settled for three points after passing on first down and coming up short on a pair of Ray Rice runs. Couldn't help thinking at the time that if the roles were reversed, Ben Roethlisberger would have crawled over his right guard to get into the end zone on third down.
Those four unrealized points looked pretty big until Joe Flacco made that terrific game-winning throw to Torrey Smith, which saved the Ravens from looking up at the Steelers as they begin the December playoff push.
The point here isn't just to criticize Cam Cameron's play calling in a handful of situations. The football season is made up of hundreds of play calls, all of which look great when they work and look bad when they don't. It's just that the Ravens seem to exhibit a lack of confidence in close red zone situations, and there's really no reason for that.
Flacco is a big strong guy like Roethlisberger who is capable of scoring or extending a drive on a quarterback sneak once in awhile, especially with big guards Marshall Yanda and Ben Grubbs in front of him. Ricky Williams was brought here to help the Ravens pound out tough yards and soften up opposing defenses, which he has been doing in ball-control situations late in games. Leach gives them an additional short-yardage option. All they really lack is the swagger.
Still, even in ball-control situation in the fourth quarter against the 49ers — when the Ravens were trying to pound out the win — they went outside with Williams on a third-and-one and were forced to punt.
Historically, the Ravens have not been a great red zone team. They rank 21st in the league in the percentage of red zone opportunities that are converted into touchdowns (47.2) and have ranked in the top 20 in the NFL in that category just once in the last seven years, according to the stat Web site teamrankings.com. They have improved significantly in that department during the Harbaugh era, perhaps because the team finally settled on a franchise quarterback.
To be fair to both the Harbaugh and former head coach Brian Billick, those rankings are rendered less meaningful because of the team's great defensive tradition, which puts a higher premium on field goals, but there still are times when you just can't settle for three points or a three-and-out.
Not if you want to go to the Super Bowl.
Listen to Peter Schmuck when he hosts "The Week in Review" Fridays at noon on WBAL (1090AM) and wbal.com.
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