Six things we learned during the Ravens-Colts game

1. This team can still play defense. When Fabian Washington got absolutely flambéd by Colts wide receiver Pierre Garçon early in the game, every French-speaking Ravens fan was probably mumbling "Mon Dieu" to themselves. It looked like this was going to be one of those 41-7 blowouts. But give the defense a lot of credit. They collapsed the pocket, and defensive coordinator Greg Mattison -- who has taken a lot of heat from fans here and elsewhere -- blitzed Peyton Manning enough times to clearly rattle him. (Quick aside: You will never, ever find a shortage of NFL analysts willing to praise Manning, but it's stunning to me how many of them let him off the hook for the two or three really dumb throws he makes a game. Ed Reed made a nice break on the ball on his interception, but that was a really bad decision by Manning. There is no question the guy is one of the best to ever play the position, but as smart as Manning is at supposedly reading coverage, I'd still take Tom Brady in the clutch. I find it preposterous that so many people pick Manning without hesitation.) Back to the Ravens: Haloti Ngata's presence on run defense was a big help, and even though Ray Lewis didn't have his best game, he was still rallying to the football and it was his punch that caused that goal-line fumble. The defense definitely played well enough to win. Jarret Johnson has developed into a great player. To play this well, without their best pass rusher, after so many uneven games was commendable. 2. Ed Reed tried to lateral on that last play because that's what Ed Reed does. And as great as he is, the head coach needs to pull him aside and tell him to not do it anymore. I'm a big fan of Reed. And I think, for the most part, Ravens fans are probably going to be a little harder on him than they should be Monday morning. Yes, it was a foolish lateral attempt, and maybe the Ravens would have been able to complete two 20-yard passes and kick a miracle field goal had he simply downed the ball. But think about this for a second: Ed Reed has lateraled, or tried to lateral, every time he's had the ball this year. That's obviously something the Ravens teach their defensive players, probably going all the way back through Marvin Lewis, Mike Nolan and Rex Ryan. Rich Eisen even pointed it out on the NFL Network recently, and Drew Magary of Deadspin/Kissing Suzy Kolber pointed it out as well. He is so desperate to turn a big play into a bigger play, he tries to make something extra happen. Which is fine, except when it's not. If the Ravens are going to put him back there to catch a punt in that situation, the special teams coach, or the head coach, really needs to pull him aside before the play and say "Make your moves, but do not pitch the ball." That's the kind of discipline that this team just hasn't had this year. It's a cliche to talk about how little things win football games, but this situation is a great example of why it's also a truism.

3. Right now, John Harbaugh looks like a special teams guru the same way Brian Billick looked like an offensive genius. Harsh? Maybe. But true? At this point, how can you argue otherwise? As good as Billy Cundiff looked -- and it's clear he was a massive mental upgrade over Steve Hauschka -- Matt Stover still kicked the game-winning field goal. That has to sting a little. But let's put aside the Stover issue for a minute because it's been debated ad nauseum. The special teams this year have been totally inconsistent, at least by the standards of someone who earned his reputation as a great special teams coach. Chris Carr seems to fair catch punts whenever he has room to roam, and let them go when fair catching them could save the Ravens an extra 20 yards. Lardarius Webb had a great kickoff return against Denver, but against the Colts, he was extremely lucky a challenge overturned a fumble that probably would have put the Ravens in a 14-0 hole. Matt Katula's high snap contributed to Cundiff's one miss, and he bounced a snap to punter Sam Koch two games ago. Koch had a punt blocked earlier this year against the Chiefs. Ed Reed's foolish lateral on a punt return probably cost Baltimore a shot at a 55-yard field goal, at worst. Losing Brendon Ayanbadejo definitely hurt the Ravens, both on defense and on special teams, but it's still surprising this has been such a major issue for this team.


4. The Ravens have way more success running the ball from the spread formation than they do from a normal or two tight end formation. So go with it. It's easy to look like a genius in hindsight, so bagging on Cam Cameron for his play-calling when the Ravens had three straight plays from the 1-yard-line and couldn't get in isn't going to come across as some tremendous insight. Obviously they should have done something different, so here is my suggestion: The Ravens don't have enough beef and strength between Matt Birk, Ben Grubbs and Chris Chester to stuff it down a team's throat when they know it's coming, so the Ravens might as well just spread out and let Ray Rice make a cut on a stretch play. Seriously. Birk is a great player, but he's not as young as he once was. Grubbs and Chester still need to get stronger in the weight room. All three got pushed backward on those plays. Wouldn't have mattered if Le'Ron McClain had the ball instead of MacGahee. But the Ravens tackles can and do mow people down, and Rice has great vision. If Flacco had come to the line with everyone spread out, the Colts still would have suspected the Ravens were going to run it, but Rice is good enough that he still might have found a seam and picked up that one yard. And if the other team overplays the run, both slot receivers or the tight end should be wide open.

5. Joe Flacco can't rely on Ray Rice too much in the passing game. After a pretty shaky first half, Joe Flacco really picked it up in the second half and was really clicking, finding Rice underneath for some nice gains and hitting Derrick Mason for some key first downs. Right now, Rice is catching the ball out of the backfield like a poor man's Marshall Faulk, and it's really become the most consistent offensive weapon the Ravens have. But Flacco went to his security blanket one too many times at the end. Go back and watch the play where he throws the interception to Gary Brackett. Todd Heap is lined up in the slot and runs a dig, meaning he fakes to the outside and cuts back toward the middle. Even though Heap is hurt and gritting his way through most of this game, he's open here and probably should be Flacco's primary read on that play. But Flacco wants to dump it to Rice, who has three guys around him.


Listen to Rice's explanation, which I think I should point out wasn't blaming Flacco as much as it was just trying to clarify what happened.

"I knew they were double covering me," Rice said. "I was trying to clear out for an underneath route for Todd. I took two with me. I'm not sure if Joe had pressure or not. But that's a play we can execute. If I take two, somebody is going to be open. That's the moral of the game. That backer [Gary Brackett] after speaking to him, he was actually suppose to be blitzing. He knows the kind of guy I am out of the backfield, so he felt the need to come out and the ball was right there."

Reads like that are simply part of Flacco's maturation process. He'll see that on film and he'll be livid with himself and somewhere down the road, he'll make the right read. But remember, he's still a second-year quarterback figuring out the tricks defenses play. We forget that sometimes just because he's not Kyle Boller.

6. Shocking as this is, the Ravens are still in the hunt for the playoffs thanks to two really bad losses by the Steelers and Bengals. It's important to first point out that, right now, the Ravens don't deserve to be in the playoffs if they keep playing like this. So expecting them to magically turn it around is a little silly. But ... the Steelers clearly are suffering from a typical post Super Bowl hangover (Drink like a champion today!), and if Ben Roethlisberger's injury is serious, it's possible the Ravens could sweep them.The Bengals have punked the Ravens twice this year, but I'm still not sure you can rule out a total collapse from them. But let's say the Bengals win their division, despite their horrible loss to the Oakland Raiders. If the Ravens could somehow -- and I understand, you're dying with laughter just reading this -- beat Pittsburgh twice and avoid another stinky loss to an inferior team, all they would have to do is finish with a better record than the Jaguars, Broncos and Texans. (This is assuming the Chargers win their division, which I think they will.) And Baltimore holds the head-to-head tie-breaker over the Broncos, who right now look like they might not win another game anyway. The question is, what have we seen from this team -- at least in terms of a complete effort -- that makes us believe that is even remotely possible?

[Cue the Jim Mora voice!]

Playoffs? Playoffs?