With an ugly but eventful 20-17 overtime win over the AFC North-leading Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday, the Ravens moved back into the playoff picture. But are they any closer to being a playoff-caliber team?
I’m not so sure.
The win over the Bengals provided plenty of thrills. It also provided a little hope for a Ravens team that was clearly relieved after the game. Quarterback Joe Flacco remarked that this was one of those games where the players wipe their brows and say “phew” once they escape with a win and cornerback Jimmy Smith said it saved their season. The Ravens are not out of the hole they buried themselves in, but at 4-5, they trail the Bengals by a game and a half in the AFC North and are just a game out of a wild-card spot.
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Still, once they finish exhaling and start looking back on what transpired Sunday, the Ravens might realize they don’t have all that much to feel good about going forward.
The win was huge. I am not trying to downplay that. But they still have big problems that need to be solved to make the playoffs, starting on the offensive side of the ball.
After scoring 17 points in the first half, thanks to big helping hands from both their defense and penalties by the Bengals, the Ravens watched their offense grind to a halt in the second half. They gained just 95 total yards after halftime and at one point in the fourth quarter they had fewer yards on offense than the Bengals had in penalties.
The running game continued to be woefully out of sync, with their offensive linemen getting shoved into running lanes and the running backs not being able to break into the open field. The Ravens rushed for 85 yards on 30 carries, but the backs had just 63 yards on 28 carries and only mustered one carry that went for longer than five yards.
The passing game was just as poor, with Flacco averaging just 3.9 yards per attempt and 2.9 yards per dropback when you factor in the five times he was sacked by the Bengals, though the 62 yards in pass interference penalties that his wide receivers drew are not factored into that. Flacco had just 140 yards on 36 attempts, threw two interceptions and lost a fumble. Wide receivers not named Torrey Smith, who finally got back in the end zone, combined for just three catches for 27 yards.
The Ravens' defense was once again the team’s saving grace, picking off three Andy Dalton passes and coming up with a huge fourth-down stand in overtime. But for a fourth straight game, the defense could not get off the field on a critical drive late in the fourth quarter as they allowed Dalton to complete that Hail Mary to A.J. Green.
They were able to prevail in overtime on Justin Tucker’s game-winning kick, but while the outcome was different than the previous three games, the same issues keep popping up for the Ravens and we still have seen little that suggests that the offense is close to breaking out and that the team as a whole is developing a killer instinct.
Outside of the top teams in Denver, Kansas City, Indianapolis and New England, the AFC is a total mess, so the Ravens are not alone. They have more talent than some of the teams ahead of them in the standings and time is on their side with seven weeks left in the season. But they don’t have the look of a playoff team -- not yet, at least.
One thing that I learned
James Ihedigbo has proved to be a significant upgrade over Bernard Pollard. Ihedigbo admittedly screwed up on that Hail Mary play, but he picked off the first two passes of his NFL career and made a nice play on that fourth-down stop in overtime to help bail himself out. He had not made many highlight-reel plays before Sunday, but he has been one of the team’s most consistently good defenders all season. While he might not hit as hard as Pollard, he can still lay the lumber and he is much sounder as a tackler and in coverage. Plus, he has fared pretty well while taking over for Ed Reed as the brains of the secondary. Ihedigbo’s future beyond this season is in doubt as he will be a free agent and rookie free safety Matt Elam is probably better suited to play strong safety. Plus, with the way Ihedigbo has been playing, he might earn a decent contract this spring.
Handing out game balls
The defensive game ball should be split among the Ravens' secondary, though cornerback Lardarius Webb and Ihedigbo deserve the biggest chunks of it. Webb, who struggled in the season’s first half, picked off his first pass of the season, was good in coverage and was disruptive as a blitzer. If someone has to get a game ball on offense -- well, besides Torrey Smith, who seems to be the team’s best offensive player every week -- it should go to tight end Ed Dickson, who had just three catches for 28 yards, but a couple of them were in critical situations, including his first-down reception in overtime that helped the Ravens move into field goal range.
This week’s head-scratcher
I’m a big proponent of the Ravens picking up the pace, but there is a time and a place for it. The fourth quarter of a game in which you are leading by a touchdown is usually not one of them. Yet there the Ravens were, hurrying up to the line and snapping the ball with double digits on the play clock. It’s not like they had the Bengals on their heels. The Ravens had just 57 net yards in the second half. If they had managed the clock better in the fourth quarter, there probably would not have been a game-tying drive and certainly no last-second Hail Mary. I’m not sure if that is on Harbaugh or Flacco, but if it was not Harbaugh, he needed to step in and tell Flacco to slow down.
The stat that stands out
Six -- first downs via Bengals penalties for the Ravens, who had just one on the ground and 11 through the air. The Bengals had 134 yards in penalties in the game.
They said it (or tweeted it)
"I knew it was going to be short, so I moved up. Bone-head move. I just should have stayed back. It probably would have fell right in my lap. I saw it drifting and tried to slap it to the ground. It went up in the air. Easy touchdown.” -- James Ihedigbo when asked about tipping Dalton’s Hail Mary pass to Green at the end of regulation.
Three (thoughts) and out
1. When playing divisional foes, you must add new wrinkles and the Ravens did that Sunday. Offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell can’t be pleased with the overall performance of his offense, but the Ravens expanded their pistol package and also had success on a couple of trick plays. The Bengals were called for defensive pass interference on a flea-flicker pass deep down the field to Jacoby Jones and backup quarterback Tyrod Taylor rushed for 18 yards on an end-around after lining up as a wide receiver. Defensive coordinator Dean Pees lined up Webb in the slot a lot and sent him as a blitzer on a handful of plays. Webb deflected a couple of passes at the line and otherwise made Dalton uncomfortable. There was also at least one play where Pees rushed Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil from the same side of the defense. Kudos to those two Ravens coordinators for showing a little creativity in the win over the Bengals.
2. I think it might be time for the Ravens to give Bernard Pierce a bigger workload. Ray Rice has had a great career here in Baltimore, but for whatever reason, he doesn’t look like himself this season. He is not exploding into the few holes that are there and he looks like a little kid running in a snowsuit when he gets the ball in the open field. Pierce has been banged-up, too, but he looked pretty good Sunday. His numbers -- 31 yards on eight carries -- aren’t eye-popping, but he displayed the necessary burst that we haven’t seen from either back in recent weeks. He also had 12 yards on two catches that were basically extended handoffs. With Rice struggling again, it is time to give Pierce an opportunity to take the job and run with it. Go with the hot hand -- well, make that hotter hand -- and right now that appears to be Pierce.
3. Punter Sam Koch has struggled in recent weeks, particularly with his directional punting. I talked about it with him last week for a story for the newspaper, and he talked about how it was the most frustrating stretch of his career. Koch had a nice bounce-back performance against the Bengals. While he netted just 36.6 yards per punt, he had no touchbacks and dropped three punts inside the 20-yard line, including a beautiful directional punt late in the first half that covered 35 yards and took eight seconds off the clock before going out of bounds at the 13-yard line. Plus, Koch did it all after his wife gave birth to another child in the wee hours of the morning Sunday. Koch will admit he still has work to do to get where he wants to be, but he is heading in the right direction.