Schmuck: Ravens almost fooled us, but they were who they were

Now that the sting of Sunday’s heartbreaking loss is beginning to subside, let’s try to be honest with ourselves.

The Ravens were not a strong playoff contender undone by one horrific defensive breakdown in the final minute of an otherwise deserved victory over a worthy opponent.

The Ravens proved themselves to be a playoff pretender undone by an erratic offense and a defense that failed to live up to some heady billing at key junctures over an uneven season.

That’s not meant to insult the effort that brought them to the brink of the postseason. They could’ve easily packed it in a long time ago, when the injuries and losses were mounting and the likelihood of a playoff berth was evaporating as they headed into their Week 10 bye.

They knew then that they probably needed to win six of their last seven regular-season games, and they deserve credit for coming within one minute of doing so. But Terrell Suggs wanted none of that in the gloomy Ravens locker room Sunday evening.

“I don’t give a damn about a moral victory,” he said. “We are out. We are out. We needed six of seven. We have never been a team about moral victories. During those five of the last seven, it was win and you get in. You need to be yourself. We did not play like ourselves, and it is nobody’s fault. It is no one man’s fault. There is no perfect call in football. We are all men. You have to win together. You lose together. But this one is going to hurt for a long time.”

He was definitely right about one thing. The season wasn’t lost on one play, though it undoubtedly felt like that to the Ravens and their fans. The last cut was the deepest, and that 49-yard touchdown play that allowed a sub-.500 Cincinnati Bengals team to play the ultimate spoiler will live in infamy in the annals of Baltimore sports. But the Ravens’ late-season surge had begun to unravel well before that.

We should’ve gotten the hint that they were not headed deep into the playoffs a week earlier, when they let the 3-11 Indianapolis Colts hang around long enough to be in the red zone threatening to tie or win with less than two minutes to play.

It remains a mystery how the same team that pitched three shutouts and ranked among the top 10 NFL teams in scoring could play a first half as abysmal as the one the Ravens played Sunday, especially considering the importance of the game.

The Ravens managed just one first down and punted seven times in the first half. If not for Chris Moore’s 87-yard kickoff return at the end of the second quarter, they would’ve come out of halftime down by two touchdowns to a team that had been outscored a combined 67-14 by the Chicago Bears and Minnesota Vikings over a two-game period earlier in the month.

Though the Ravens battled back to put themselves into position to win, they did what they’ve done way too much over the past couple of years. They handed the ball over late in the fourth quarter with the game still in doubt, and it’s hard to stop a team that is playing four-down, nothing-to-lose football.

The little picture is easier to see. Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton had a puncher’s chance at the end and he delivered a knockout. The bigger picture is more important. The Ravens did not beat a single team this season that is still playing. They were 0-5 against their four opponents that made the playoffs — the Pittsburgh Steelers, Vikings, Jacksonville Jaguars and Tennessee Titans.

During the hard-fought road loss to the Steelers on Sunday night in Week 14, NBC analyst Cris Collinsworth pointed out that “nobody wants to see the Ravens” in the postseason. It was hard to argue with that at the time, considering that those Ravens had just trounced a decent Detroit Lions team, 44-20, and were riding a three-game winning streak.

Then they let the winless Cleveland Browns hang around in the first half and the pitiful Colts stick around to set up what could’ve been a bitter end before the Bengals finally made them pay for their inability to dominate mediocre competition.

It still was an impressive recovery over the final seven games of the season. The Ravens overcame all manner of injuries and adversity to get into position to reach the playoffs for the first time since 2014, which is admirable.

It just wasn’t enough.

peter.schmuck@baltsun.com

twitter.com/SchmuckStop

Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here," at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog.

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