With every unproductive run, ill-advised penalty and blown assignment, the Ravens hammered home the point Cleveland Browns cornerback Joe Haden made during the week.
These Ravens are not the Ravens of old. Those teams got better as the season went on, made key plays late in games and played their best football after the bye week. They also always beat the Browns.
These Ravens proved incapable of accomplishing any of those things on Sunday, and as a result, their sagging playoff hopes took yet another hit. A head-scratching 24-18 loss to Cleveland before an announced 71,513 at First Energy Stadium featured all of the same elements that pop up every week and have been the difference in the Ravens (3-5) losing close games.
On offense, the running game and pass protection was nonexistent. On defense, communication errors hurt the Ravens early, and a failure to get off the field late ended the team’s comeback hopes. A muffed punt by returner Tandon Doss led to a Browns’ touchdown and completed the breakdown of all three phases.
“We just haven’t been good enough,” said battered Ravens’ quarterback Joe Flacco, who hit rookie Marlon Brown for two touchdowns as part of an uneven day.
Flacco’s status as the team’s leading rusher summed up the afternoon almost as well as his fluttering second-quarter interception in which he badly underthrew Jacoby Jones.
“They were better than us,” Flacco said.
In 11 previous matchups against the Browns, the Ravens have never had to accept that reality. It was always the Browns that made the most mistakes and couldn’t convert key plays with the game on the line. But Sunday, with their third quarterback of the season, Jason Campbell, encountering little resistance at times driving his team down the field, the Browns built a 14-3 lead early in the second quarter thanks to two Davone Bess touchdown catches.
Cleveland took a 21-10 lead into the fourth quarter and they held off the reigning Super Bowl champions from there, draining all but 14 seconds off the clock in their final drive before former Raven Billy Cundiff made a 22-yard field goal to give the home team a 24-18 lead.
The victory represented their first over a team coached by John Harbaugh and quarterbacked by Flacco. It was the Browns’ first win over the Ravens since Nov. 18, 2007. But beyond that, it was the Ravens’ third straight loss and their fourth in the past five games. The Ravens haven’t won a game since Oct. 6.
“We have to win a game,” Ravens defensive end Chris Canty said. “That’s as simple as I can put it. We’re in a situation where we have to win a game. That’s our focus. We can’t worry about what’s going on around us, who can help us or whatever. My experience is you have to win a game and you have to take care of business. We haven’t been doing that of late.”
The Ravens fell into third place in the AFC North behind the Browns, though they didn’t lose a whole lot of ground. The first-place Cincinnati Bengals, who come to M&T Bank Stadium on Sunday, lost last Thursday to the Miami Dolphins to fall to 6-3. The San Diego Chargers, who went into the week in the sixth and final playoff position, also were beaten in overtime Sunday by the Washington Redskins.
But the Ravens acknowledged in the locker room that all that will mean very little until they can figure out a way to fix the issues that persisted through the first seven weeks and then clearly didn’t get corrected despite the time spent on them during the bye week. The loss was the first in six season under Harbaugh after the bye.
“We got to get it going,” right guard Marshal Yanda said. “It’s now-or-never time for us.”
Several players acknowledged that the frustration level in the locker room was extremely high though players seemed to be at a loss to explain why the same issues keep coming up over and over again.
The Ravens, who entered the week ranked 28thin rushing yards per game and last in rushing yards per carry, gained just 55 yards on 21 carries. Rice, who proclaimed himself fully healthy after the bye week, rushed for just 17 yards on 11 carries.
“We got to figure that out,” Harbaugh said. “We cannot run the ball right now.”
Flacco was battered for much of the game, sacked five times and hit eight total times as the offense again wasn’t able to get anything going until late in the second quarter when Brown caught a 19-yard touchdown to cut Cleveland’s lead to 14-10 heading into halftime. They were fortunate to be that close.
Continuing their trend of slow starts, the Ravens went three-and-out on four of their first five possessions and their sixth resulted in the Flacco interception by Haden.
“Just a terrible ball,” he said.
Things went from bad to worse for the visitors about midway through the third quarter when Doss muffed a punt, giving the Browns the ball at the 11-yard line. Two plays later, Campbell hit reserve tight end Gary Barnidge for a 4-yard touchdown and a 21-10 Cleveland lead. The score went uncontested as there was a communication error on the play and nobody picked up Barnidge, one of several missed assignments that victimized the Ravens’ secondary.
Doss, however, took the blame for the entire sequence.
“Dropping that ball changed the game,” he said. “You can’t let that happen.”
With all that and nine penalties for 80 yards, the Ravens still pulled within a field goal early in the fourth quarter. Flacco found Brown for a 7-yard touchdown, and then hit him on the two-point conversion to cut the Browns’ lead to 21-18 with 12:09 to play.
The Ravens got the ball back and converted on a fourth-and-1 to get near midfield, before Flacco was sacked on third down, forcing another punt. There was still 6:44 to play and the Ravens trailed only by a field goal, but Sam Koch’s 25-yard punt was the first of several plays that sealed the Ravens’ fate.
Campbell scrambled for 12 yards on third-and-3. Then, on fourth-and-1 from the Ravens’ 43, Campbell hit Bess for 3 yards. Two first-down completions to Chris Ogbonnaya then set up Cundiff’s chip-shot field goal, which finalized a 15-play and 67-yard drive that ate up six minutes, 30 seconds.
It marked the third straight game where the Ravens’ defense was unable to get off the field late in the fourth quarter.
“We just have to find a way to get off the field,” Canty said. “Championship defenses are able to do that. We weren’t able to do that today.”
Rush linebacker Terrell Suggs, who declared that the Ravens were in a state of emergency when the Ravens lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers two weeks ago, declined to speak to reporters after Sunday’s loss. Rice was not in the locker room when reporters were allowed to enter. Defensive end Arthur Jones bid good riddance to Ravens’ fans who have lost hope, saying, “I appreciate the fans that stick with us and the ones that don’t, they can go kick rocks.”
Harbaugh, meanwhile, didn’t hide from the challenge that now faces his team. His team has made the playoffs in five straight seasons, but as Haden said earlier in the week and as the Ravens continue to prove every Sunday, this is a different Ravens’ team.
“We’re 3-5,” Harbaugh said. “The math says it’s going to be a challenge. We’re going to have to win some games. We’re going to have to start winning close games. That’s the No. 1 thing we’ve got to get done and you do that first of all by not losing the game. You can’t make the mistakes that create opportunities for your opponent and we’ve done way too much of that.”