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Ravens again show how slim margin of error is, an actual running game and more from Sunday's loss to the Chicago Bears

When the Ravens resumed control of the football at their 16-yard line with just under five minutes left to play Sunday, it felt as if the Chicago Bears' end zone was 184 yards away, not 84. Their offense had struggled to get traction, both literally and figuratively, in the second half and now trailed by a field goal. Facing long odds of winning, the Ravens needed to put together one efficient drive. And they would.

After two incompletions to start the drive, their win probability was at 22 percent, according to Advanced NFL Stats. But after a pair of first downs, the first coming via a 15-yard Bears penalty, the Ravens crossed midfield. After the Ravens gained just six yards on three plays, their win probability dropped to 19 percent. But after Dallas Clark made a huge one-handed catch on 4th and 4, it spiked to 43 percent.

The Ravens were rolling again, and when they earned a new set of downs at the 5-yard line in the final minute of regulation, their win probability was 87 percent. They would get three shots at the end zone, but after a pair of unsuccessful runs and a throwaway by quarterback Joe Flacco, they were forced to settle for a game-tying field goal. By letting the opportunity slip from their grasp, the game became a toss up.

I wanted to share the projected win probabilities as a way to show how slim the margin of error is in the NFL. As tight games ebb and flow, they are usually decided by a handful of plays. For the winning team, they are joyfully relived in the locker room after the game. For the losers, they linger in their heads beyond the 24-hour rule.

This season, the Ravens have been on the losing end more than they are accustomed to, and while this was their first loss in overtime, many others have been equally as excruciating. They got blown out by the Denver Broncos in Week 1, but since then, their losses are by three points, two points, three points, six points and three points.

The Ravens are now 4-6 and probably in too deep of a deficit to catch the Cincinnati Bengals in the AFC North. The final wild-card spot is still a possibility because they are one of a handful of mediocre teams in the AFC. But they can forget about the playoffs if they keep squandering opportunities, especially in high-leverage situations.

Unlike their Super Bowl-winning predecessors, this Ravens team lacks a killer instinct. For the second straight week, they coughed up a double-digit lead. The offense scored just three points after halftime. And the defense, which has been great during the first three quarters this season, could not end a Bears drive in overtime.

The Bears comeback was aided by a pair of interceptions by quarterback Joe Flacco, who has set a new single-season career-high with 13 picks in 2013, in the first half.

The first was a 24-yard pick-six by Bears defensive end David Bass, who snuffed out a swing pass in the flat and beat Flacco in a foot race to the end zone. The second came late in the first half, when Flacco made an ill-advised pass up the seam into double coverage. The Bears took advantage of that mistake by kicking a field goal.

Those are just some of the plays the Ravens would like to have back. It seems there are a few every week, and in the NFL, they are enough to cost you any given game.

The reality is that good teams, winning teams find a way to punch the ball into the end zone when they have three shots inside the 5-yard line -- and if they don’t, they find some way to atone for it in overtime. The Ravens aren’t a bad team, but the margin of error in this league is so slim, and we saw that again in another disheartening loss.

One thing that I learned

These Ravens are capable of running the ball after all. We have been waiting for weeks to see a breakthrough in the running game from the Ravens, who entered the game last in the NFL at 2.8 yards per carry. On the first handoff Sunday, the embattled offensive line opened up a huge running lane for Ray Rice, who exploded through it for a 47-yard gain, his longest of the season. Rice ended with 131 rushing yards and a touchdown on 25 carries and the team would total 174 rushing yards overall, though it must be noted that the Bears ranked 31st in rushing defense entering Week 11. Still, it was a moral victory in another close loss. We will see if the Ravens can keep it going.

Handing out game balls

The offensive game ball goes to the offensive line and Rice, who have been under the microscope for much of the season and who for the most part have held themselves accountable, at least publicly, for their struggles. The defensive game ball goes to cornerback Jimmy Smith, who put forth another strong performance against the Bears, particularly against Brandon Marshall, their star wide receiver.

This week’s head-scratcher

Some of the NFL’s most memorable games have been played in extreme elements, and while Sunday’s game won’t go down as one of the greatest of all-time, it was a pretty entertaining game as the teams tried to throw in the wind and keep their footing on a soggy, chopped-up grass surface at Soldier Field. That being said, the NFL knew that a long delay was inevitable as dangerous storms rolled through the Midwest, so why didn’t they just push this game back from the start? The delay, which started with the Ravens up by 10 points and lasted an hour and 53 minutes, shouldn’t be used as excuse for the loss. But it interrupted the flow of the game and wasted people’s time.

They said it (or tweeted it)

“We just got to learn how to finish.” -- fullback Vonta Leach. He was referring to the offense, but his statement could probably apply to this Ravens team as a whole.

The stat that stands out

zero -- sacks for Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil, who had totaled 17.5 entering the game. Sunday’s loss was the first game all season in which neither recorded a sack.

Three (thoughts) and out

1. One series of plays Sunday served as a great example of the growth of Jimmy Smith. In the second quarter, the Bears had the ball inside the 10-yard line. On third down, Smith swatted the ball away from Marshall, but Smith was flagged for defensive holding, giving the Bears a new set of downs. In the past, Smith might have wilted in the ensuing moments, but he stood tall as the Bears continued to come after him. On first down, Smith broke up a slant pass intended for Marshall, one of the NFL’s most physical receivers. Bears quarterback Josh McCown went in another direction on second down, but he came back to Marshall on third down. Smith rose to the occasion again, jostling with Marshall for a jump ball and knocking it down. It is too early to call Smith a shutdown corner, but he has done an admirable job against some pretty good receivers in recent weeks and is finally playing like a former first-round pick should.

2. Sunday’s game was not a good one for left tackle Eugene Monroe, who was beaten twice for sacks by Julius Peppers, including one on a fourth-down play in the third quarter that resulted in Flacco losing a fumble. Monroe, who has fared pretty well as a run blocker, has been beaten for sacks four times in his five games as a starter. I’m sure that isn’t exactly what the Ravens had in mind when they traded a pair of draft picks to pry him away from the Jacksonville Jaguars. But still, he is a player the Ravens must invest in after the season. It is hard to find quality left tackles when you usually draft late in the first round. And while the Ravens are more likely to be in the middle of the first round this year, it makes sense to bring Monroe back -- and let right tackle Michael Oher walk -- if the price is right for Monroe. He is a solid player, despite the sacks he surrendered Sunday, and you need those at both offensive tackle spots.

3. The defensive front has been a strength all season, but not Sunday. I'm sure playing without starting nose tackle Haloti Ngata was a factor, but Bears running back Matt Forte, who had 83 yards on 18 carries, did most of his damage running to the outside. The Ravens had just two sacks, one of them coming when McCown scrambled from the pocket and was tackled just short of the line of scrimmage by cornerback Corey Graham. The Ravens actually got a decent amount of pressure, but too often McCown was able to evade the pass rush, step up in the pocket and find a receiver on the move. After the game, defensive tackle Arthur Jones said that it was tough to run and change directions on the soggy grass. I’m sure that was a factor, too, but I figured the front seven would be better in a game played in those kind of elements.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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