Five Things We Learned from the Ravens' 31-27 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals

1) This was a spirit-crushing loss that demands some form of change.

The postgame locker room was utterly despondent.

Linebacker Terrell Suggs called it the most devastating regular-season defeat in his 15-year career. Safety Tony Jefferson was near tears. A few players made half-hearted comments about looking to the future, but as they processed a third straight year with no playoffs, it was clear that close was nowhere near good enough.

The Ravens talked all season about finishing strong, the very thing they could not do last year, when they lost their last two games to fall out of the AFC playoff race. They seemed primed to do it after reeling off five wins in six games since their bye week and outscoring opponents by a combined 77 points in that stretch.

All they had to do was beat a team they embarrassed in Week 1 and they were headed back to the postseason.

Faced with the exact situation they coveted, the Ravens showed up poorly prepared to play on a bitterly cold New Year’s Eve in Baltimore.

I’m generally suspicious of such blanket statements. But what else do you call it when a top-10 defense gets trampled by a bottom-10 offense on the first drive of the game? When an offense that seemed to find itself in recent weeks manages two first downs in the entire first half?

Yes, they mounted a stirring rally in the second half and seemed on the verge of pulling back from the abyss. But then a defense in which they had invested so heavily could not stop the Bengals on the 4th down-and-12 that defined the season.

Do we put that on head coach John Harbaugh?

For a decade, Harbaugh has shown a rare ability not to lose his grip on difficult seasons. He deserves credit for keeping the train on the tracks this year after the Ravens started 4-5 and appeared utterly lost on offense.

His resume outweighs the Ravens’ performance in this game, and if owner Steve Bisciotti’s past behavior is any guide, Harbaugh will be back in 2018.

It’s just hard to imagine the Ravens coach acting as if everything has been fine the last three seasons.

Harbaugh surprised many people by keeping Marty Mornhinweg as his offensive coordinator after last season. He’ll be ripped to shreds by fans and analysts if he makes the same decision this time around, especially after the Ravens delivered a pitiful offensive effort in the first half Sunday.

It will also be fascinating to see if the Ravens begin to plan for life after Joe Flacco, who’s contractually locked in as the team’s franchise player next year and probably the year after. Flacco played well down the stretch this season, but his performance in the first half Saturday reminded us how uneven he’s been since 2014.

The Ravens remain stocked with talent on the defensive side, but change could be afoot there as well with reports swirling that coordinator Dean Pees will retire.

We’ll have plenty of time to debate the specifics over the next few weeks. But this was too great a gut punch for the Ravens to avoid an offseason of painful self-examination.

2) The difference between the first-half offense and the second-half offense summed up a schizophrenic season.

The Ravens began the game with an inept half of offense that evoked their worst moments of the season.

Their best receiver, Mike Wallace, dropped two passes in the first quarter. But Flacco also underthrew him on three downfield attempts before halftime.

Beyond that, Flacco misfired on a pair of short throws to an open Alex Collins. He completed just 5 of 19 for an anemic 28 yards in the first half.

Were the wind and frigid temperature to blame?

Flacco didn’t think so. “When you let a good defense off the hook a couple times early, it’s not going to be good for you,” he said.

Beyond the execution troubles, we saw precious little imagination in the team’s game plan. That wouldn’t have been a problem if the basic stuff was clicking, but the Ravens seemed unable to change the narrative as drive after drive faltered.

They finally found a bit of rhythm on their first drive of the second half, only for Flacco to throw behind Chris Moore, who bobbled the ball right into the arms of Bengals cornerback Darqueze Dennard. Eighty-nine yards later, the Ravens were down two touchdowns.

And then just like that, they were fine again.

Flacco completed 20 of 28 for 175 yards and a touchdown in the second half. Collins and Javorius Allen ripped off tough runs. The Ravens rallied to take a late lead.

How do we explain the night-and-day difference in the offense? Harbaugh said he couldn’t analyze it 10 minutes after the game. Flacco said the Ravens didn’t play well enough to win overall. Wallace focused on the spirited comeback.

At least in those immediate moments of disappointment, they didn’t seem to know the answers either.

3) After all their investments on defense, the Ravens ended up right back where they finished 2016.

Linebacker C.J. Mosley summed it up, reflecting on another season that ended with a failed defensive stand.

“It takes us right back to last year,” he said.

After an offseason in which the Ravens devoted their biggest free-agent signings and most of their draft to building a world-beating defense, they weren’t quite good enough on the crucial drives of the season.

It was stunning to watch the Cincinnati offense, one of the worst in the league by any measure, do whatever it wanted on the first drive of the game. Where was the energy from a team that needed to win to secure its playoff spot? Bengals running backs rolled for 47 yards on 5 carries, exploiting weak edge defense from outside linebackers Za’Darius Smith and Matthew Judon.

The Ravens clamped down for a while after that, holding the Bengals without a score for six straight drives. But with the offense providing zero relief, the defense eventually faltered again late in the second quarter.

Both Joe Mixon and Giovani Bernard piled up yards running at the edge of the Baltimore front seven, and Ravens linebacker Patrick Onwuasor simply could not keep up with Bengals tight end Tyler Kroft in coverage. Second-year cornerback Maurice Canady appeared overwhelmed in the slot.

The Bengals outgained the Ravens by a staggering 268 yards to 61 in the first half. This was a team the Ravens shut out in the first week of the season.

The defense again dominated for most of the second half, with Suggs, Mosley, Judon and Brandon Williams all contributing significant plays.

Their effort would have gone down as a triumph if they’d finished one more play. Instead, Bengals receiver Tyler Boyd found a seam between Jefferson and Canady, two pieces of the Ravens’ high-priced secondary, and scored the backbreaking 49-yard touchdown.

The defense doesn’t deserve a failing grade for the season overall. From Pro Bowl selections Suggs and Mosley to rookie cornerback Marlon Humphrey to Williams in the middle, the Ravens have many gifted defenders who played well more often than not. They should be good again next year. But they weren’t the A+ group many had hoped for coming out of the preseason.

4) Pees’ potential retirement won’t destabilize the Ravens defense, but he would be missed.

The Ravens haven’t confirmed various reports that their defensive coordinator will retire after the season, but the possible news isn’t a surprise to anyone who’s been around the team this year.

Whether the Ravens promote linebackers coach Don Martindale or bring back freshly deposed Colts coach Chuck Pagano, it seems unlikely they’ll reach outside their extended family. We’re not likely to see a major change of philosophy.

Pees, meanwhile, has been unfairly bashed at times during his six years as coordinator. I know it’s hard for fans to see it that way after the defense failed on the deciding drive of the season. But it’s a thankless job in many ways, because we assume the Ravens will excel on defense every season. It’s only a story when they don’t.

No, Pees didn’t lead defenses as dominant as those coached by Marvin Lewis or Rex Ryan. But he was often working without an elite pass rusher (partially due to Terrell Suggs’ injuries, partially due to underwhelming drafts) or anything resembling a healthy secondary.

Still, he made it work more often than not, using creative blitzes and player rotations. He could be defensive (no pun intended) when his crew didn’t meet expectations, but he never threw individual players under the bus.

Pees was at his best after the team’s recent loss in Pittsburgh, where the defense couldn’t hold an 11-point fourth-quarter lead. He took responsibility for not using Marlon Humphrey to shadow Antonio Brown and gave a thorough explanation of his thinking on the matter.

He was accountable and professorial, just as you’d expect from a veteran coach.

5) The fans delivered their best performance of the season.

This has been a year of uneasy relations between the Ravens and their fans.

From the widespread anger over players kneeling during the national anthem in London to the swaths of empty seats at home games, we’ve had to ask difficult questions about the state of Baltimore’s affection for its football team.

There were plenty of empty seats on Sunday for the coldest game in M&T Bank Stadium history.

But this time, the no-shows weren’t the story.

Instead, give all the credit in the world to those who showed up and froze.

You could sense their disgust as the Ravens stumbled through the first half and appeared in real peril of falling from playoff contention. But the same fans threw their hearts into the second half, creating the most raucous atmosphere of the season despite their modest numbers.

You could feel them pounding on the press box every time the Ravens gained a precious first down or needed a key stop on defense. The players heard, waving their arms to fuel the frenzy.

The problems of this season were probably deep enough that one afternoon won’t wipe them away. But this last chapter of the Ravens’ season reminded us how exhilarating the team-city bond can feel.

childs.walker@baltsun.com

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