The Ravens can't escape another jam, Joe Flacco's back must hurt and more from Sunday's loss


November 04, 2013|By Matt Vensel | The Baltimore Sun

Last season, when they were the ones left standing on the mountaintop when all was said and done, the Ravens seemed to relish winning games with a high degree of difficulty. There was the 4th-and-29 play in San Diego. The miracle at Mile High. Those furious final moments in the Superdome in New Orleans.

This season, the Ravens are forcing themselves to be escape artists even more often. But their straitjacket straps have been too tight, their chains unshakable, the glass walls of their water tanks unbreakable.

Halfway through the season, the defending Super Bowl champions are slowly drowning. They have no one to blame but themselves. The season started with promise, but the Ravens have dropped four of their past five games. They trailed at halftime in each of those games, Sunday’s stunning 24-18 loss to the Cleveland Browns included. Now their playoff hopes could run out of oxygen by early December.

We knew the Ravens were flawed. Even after what seemed like a significant win over the Houston Texans in Week 3, we saw that the running game was a mess, that the Ravens really missed Dennis Pitta and that the defense was good but far from perfect. The Ravens have talent, maybe as much as the team that stunned the NFL by winning the Super Bowl last season, but they aren’t good enough to win when they spot their opponents early double-digit leads and squander opportunities throughout the game.

The Ravens have scored first in just two games this season and they have trailed in every one of their eight games, sometimes playing catch-up for most of the game.

Sunday’s game was the same old, same old for the Ravens, who seem to be following the same script every week. With quarterback Joe Flacco gradually throwing his way into a rhythm, the offense went three-and-out on three of its first four possessions. The Browns took advantage and a 14-3 lead in the second quarter. The Ravens clawed their way back into the game. But miscues like that third-quarter muffed punt set them back and the defense couldn’t get the late stop they needed for a third straight game.

A season ago, it seemed like the resilient defense would always find a way to get that stop. And when it mattered, Flacco somehow found a way to rally the Ravens to a victory. But it’s time to stop talking about last season. It’s over. This is a new team, one that has a similar flair for the dramatic but hasn’t had the ability to pull it out.

Now the Ravens are in more danger than they have ever put themselves in before during coach John Harbaugh’s tenure. They are 3-5 and in third place behind the Cincinnati Bengals and the Browns. Yes, the Browns. Really. And if they lose to the Bengals next weekend, they can kiss their reign of the AFC North goodbye. Their margin for error for simply making the playoffs at this point is now razor thin, and to make matters worse, the Ravens seem to be regressing with each and every loss.

Even Harry Houdini himself might back away from the trap the Ravens have just climbed into. But after an unthinkable loss to the Browns, a team they had not lost to in six long years before Sunday, the Ravens are stuck. The straps have been buckled, the chains have been locked and the chilly water in the glass tank is up to their chins.

One thing that I learned

Flacco is a good quarterback, but he isn’t capable of carrying this offense on his back. Make no mistake, Flacco struggled mightily in the first 25 minutes of the game. He missed open receivers and took some sacks in key situations. His erratic play early helped contribute to another slow start for the offense. But Flacco also came close to willing the Ravens to a comeback. He took a beating in the pocket and wasn’t afraid to venture out of it to scramble for a first down or extend a play long enough to attempt a pass. Ultimately, he wasn’t able to get it done, but it’s hard to fault him entirely for another uneven performance. The Ravens have no running game, which allows defenses to play two deep safeties against him. The offensive line did not protect him well enough Sunday. And outside of Torrey Smith, his pass-catchers are inconsistent, especially the tight ends, who combined for two catches for 17 yards. Flacco is just not yet at the level where he can hoist a group like this over the top.

Handing out game balls

Rookie wide receiver Marlon Brown continues to be a viable target in the red zone and his two touchdown catches Sunday give him a team-leading five on the season. He gets the offensive game ball. The defensive game ball goes to cornerback Jimmy Smith, who played well before exiting the game with a groin injury in the second half.

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