Mike Preston: Ravens' year-long inconsistencies played out in one game

The Ravens’ 2017 season was played out in a microcosm Sunday in a 31-27 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals that eliminated them from the postseason.

The Ravens weren’t consistent for most of the season and they were inconsistent against the Bengals. Where do we start?

The slow start. The lack of a vertical passing game. They couldn’t stop the run. The pass rush wasn’t constant.

Yet, the Ravens almost won. Again. No one can question the heart or character of this team. If the Ravens had reached the playoffs they would have had to fight back like they did Sunday.

But another recurring problem showed up Sunday. It is impossible to count on this defense to make crucial stops in the fourth quarter and it has been that way for three of four years. Last week they struggled against a no-name Colts quarterback, Jacoby Brissett.

This time it was Andy Dalton. Starting on his own 10 with 2:43 left in the game and one timeout, Dalton needed 11 plays to reach the end zone, including a 49-yard touchdown pass to Tyler Boyd with 44 seconds remaining in the game.

Worse yet, the touchdown came on a fourth-and-12 play. Let’s repeat that. It was fourth-and-12. It’s one thing to give up a first down but how in the world does a team give up a touchdown?

“We were in two deep zone coverage. It looked like a seam route to me,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “You talk about threading the needle. On the move, it was a great throw, great play. They made some great plays. Three fantastic plays, including the one at the end to win the game. That was the difference in the game.”

According to Ravens safety Eric Weddle, the Ravens had been in man-to-man for every play except the last one, when they switched to zone coverage. Apparently, the Ravens wanted to confuse the Bengals, but instead they confused themselves.

We’ve seen this before. New England’s Tom Brady has beaten the Ravens in comebacks like this and Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has made a habit of coming back against the Ravens in crunch time.

But the Bengals? Andy Dalton?

It just proves that all those turnovers the Ravens collected were misleading because they came against bad teams. This defense was good, not great.

All season long this offense has taunted Ravens fans. Some games they could run the ball. In two games they even had a downfield passing game. They have had slow starts most of the season but all those things happened in one game Sunday.

The Ravens offense was pitiful in the first half when they had just 61 total yards and failed to convert in eight third-down situations. Quarterback Joe Flacco, as he had done for most of the first half of the season, was “Mr. Check Down,” throwing to his running back instead of his receivers.

If there was a time not to have a slow start it was Sunday, because the Ravens needed to give the Bengals another reason to quit at halftime.

Instead, the Ravens were down 17-10 at the half and were terrible except for a long kickoff return and touchdown catch by Chris Moore in the closing seconds of the first half.

“Any time you put yourself behind two touchdowns, even if you come back, it puts a lot of pressure on your team,” Ravens tight end Ben Watson said. “Offensively, we didn’t play well at all in the first half.”

The Ravens like to flirt with disaster. And somehow they always managed a way to fight back. It happened again Sunday. All of a sudden Flacco got hot.

He started throwing to his receivers, Mike Wallace and Michael Campanaro, over the middle. And then there was running back Alex Collins. He might have been the find of the year in the NFL.

He finished with 78 yards rushing on 20 carries and his 17-yard touchdown run in the third quarter was a classic. There aren’t many running backs that can reverse field and still outrun all the defensive players around the corner.

The Ravens kicked, crawled and scratched their way for a comeback using everthing from the great punting of Sam Koch to two Justin Tucker field goals to capitalizing on a turnover for three points.

It worked a lot this season especially against poor teams with poor quarterbacks. The Bengals have struggled this season but Cincinnati has explosive weapons.

They have receiver A.J. Green and running backs Joe Mixon and Giovani Bernard. They put a tight end on the field the Ravens couldn’t cover, but the Ravens haven’t covered a tight end all year.

But the Ravens should have pulled this game out Sunday. They made enough plays to win and they dominated offensively in the second half.

But they had too much to overcome. The biggest hurdle was the Bengals’ last possession and Cincinnati had the Ravens right where it wanted them. It’s a familiar story, one that has been on display too many times in Baltimore.

“The adversity they’ve overcome, backs against the wall, fighting to win, week after week, when they had to win,” Harbaugh said. “To battle our way back the way we did and then not finish the game is about as tough as it can be. Even the game I think, a little bit, epitomized how the season went.”

Agreed.

mike.preston@baltsun.com

twitter.com/MikePrestonSun

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