Five things we learned from the Ravens' 20-3 loss to the Colts

1. The Colts were the better team. Period. Even if the Ravens had played better, it still would have been extremely tough to walk out of Indianapolis with a victory. Peyton Manning is a very good quarterback, and it would have taken a borderline flawless performance to beat him. The defense looked, at times, capable of pulling it off, but the offense never really gave them a chance to catch their breath. After repeated three-and-outs, cracks began to show, and Indianapolis simply overwhelmed them. All the talk about how the Colts weren't as "physical" as the Ravens seemed like wishful thinking in the end. This Colts team was tough. And they were a lot tougher mentally than the Ravens were at any point this season.

Trouncing a really bad Patriots team last week made us forget that this Ravens team usually followed a strong performance with a crummy one. That was their M.O. all season. We probably shouldn't have assumed it would be different just because it was the playoffs, but that's what a big win in the postseason will do for you. It will make you overlook your flaws and celebrate your strengths. And the truth is, this Ravens team had a lot of flaws -- from the front office to the head coach to the quarterback to the special teams specialists.


That doesn't mean this season was a total failure. But it does mean the team -- specifically John Harbaugh and Joe Flacco -- need to treat this year as a learning experience and work through some issues before next season.

Let's address them below:


2. The head coach can, and should, improve on some things. Harbaugh took a lot of criticism this year from a restless fan base that grew frustrated by the lack of discipline and consistency from his team. And some of it was justified. He gambled that the decision to go with Steve Hauschka wouldn't hurt the team down the road, and it did. His game management was, at times, pretty poor. His penchant for collegiate-style motivational ploys was fine, but that kind of thing will only take you so far. He's going to be a good NFL coach. I really believe that. But this season proved that sometimes you have to fail a little bit in order to understand your flaws, if only so you understand how to overcome them.

For starters, he needs to stop going nuts on the referees when the penalties go against his team. He doesn't have to be Don Shula-stoic, but he needs to understand that constantly kvetching, eye-rolling, and growling doesn't help. It also feeds into an excuse-making culture. The players absorb it, and the fans buy into it, too. Suddenly the entire country thinks that Baltimore fans and players whine too much. The whole city needs to move beyond the idea that this team is ALWAYS the victim of bad calls. They're not. Sometimes, sure. But not always. And this year, the Ravens brought it on themselves plenty.

(That said, the helmet-to-helmet penalty on Ray Lewis was, I thought, a very dumb call. If Austin Collie catches that ball standing up, Lewis hits him in the chest. He curled up, and Lewis' helmet collided with his. That's just football. Lewis didn't drop his head and try to spear Collie. I'm convinced that the NFL won't be satisfied until it completely neuters defense entirely.)

I don't know what Harbaugh can do to get better at clock management and challenges, but he should take it as a point of pride that he's going to be better in that area next year.

But back to the positive. He kept this team from sniping at one another despite some struggles to find an identity. He is very good at defending his players and protecting them from criticism. He made the Rice / McGahee situation work. And he got his team back to the playoffs for the second year in a row. That's ultimately how we define success. The other first-year coaches didn't do that, but Harbaugh did. Give him credit for that. He's still very good at the macro stuff, the big picture. Now it's time to tweak the micro stuff.

3. The quarterback can be good, but he's still a work in progress. Joe Flacco has taken a lot of heat the last few weeks, and deservedly so. Before we get to that, let's first point out what he did well this season. By every statistical measure, he improved this year. He got better at reading coverages, he showed he is more than a caretaker, he proved he can lead his team from behind when they get down, he learned to utilize Ray Rice -- who turned into one of the best all-purpose running backs in football -- and he made a lot of plays with some pretty marginal receivers.

But he didn't quite make "the leap" to stardom we thought he might make. Not yet. At times there were signs. Against San Diego and Minnesota, he was flinging the ball around like a Pro Bowl veteran. But for some reason, he stopped stepping up in the pocket, and he stopped throwing the ball in the middle of the field almost entirely unless it was a slant to Kelly Washington or a seam to Todd Heap. It's obvious he was hurting at the end of the year, which had something to do with his regression. But he still needs to make better decisions in the red zone. That was a problem all year, injury or no.

Cam Cameron did a good job protecting him in his first season, not giving him too much. And in his second season, we began to understand why. Flacco can make great throws to the sidelines, but he still struggles to see the whole field and to hit deep passes in stride. He's going to figure it out, but it's going to take time. He needs some weapons to help him on that journey, which brings us to point No. 4.


4. lt's time to get serious about finding a wide receiver that scares the other team. For real. If the Ravens come to training camp next year with roughly the same group of guys -- which is unlikely since Derrick Mason, Mark Clayton and Washington are either unrestricted or restricted free agents -- then the offseason was a failure.

Even if the Ravens want to solve this problem in the draft, they should explore some options in a trade as well. I really don't believe Brandon Marshall is realistic, or a good idea, no matter how many times you hear his name on talk radio over the next six months. (Just remember, because of the way the collective bargaining agreement is structured, and because next year is uncapped, the Ravens can't just go out and sign someone to a huge contract. They'd have to lose someone to free agency who already has a huge contract, and that's not going to happen. The rule, which applies only to the teams that make the divisional round of the playoffs, is put in place to keep teams in check in an uncapped year. So beating New England may hurt them in the long run, strange as that sounds.)

But back to Marshall for a second. Even if you could guarantee a good attitude from him, signing him to a huge deal would probably hinder your ability to sign Haloti Ngata and Jarret Johnson down the road to deals they deserve. And if Marshall gets in trouble off the field -- something he's done on occasion in Denver -- the NFL could sit him down for a long time. It's a bad idea all around. That logic might sound frustrating to Ravens fans looking for answers, but it's a very real thing to take into consideration.

5. If this really was Ed Reed's last game -- he said after the game he's 50/50 on whether to return or retire -- then the Ravens are going to miss him a lot more than you probably realize. Tom Zbikowski actually played pretty well in Reed's absence this year, but this isn't about replacing Reed on the field. This is about replacing him in the locker room.

I'll touch on this more in a story this week in The Sun, but Reed is as important behind the scenes as he is on the field. (And as he proved Saturday night, he's still one of the only players smart enough to outsmart Peyton Manning.) People think Ray Lewis is the leader of the Ravens because they see him screaming and hollering on the sidelines and in pre-game, and certainly Lewis' leadership is important. He's a great mentor to younger players, he works hard, he deflects a lot of attention, and handles the brunt of criticism when things don't go well. He is the public face of the franchise.

But Reed is the most important player in that locker room. He's the most popular player on the team, hands down, because he treats everyone the same way and is virtually ego free. Several players told me recently he's the only guy on the team whom everyone believes puts the team above all else, and that includes the coaching staff. If the coaches are riding the guys too hard, or if they're trying some motivational ploy that isn't working, it's Reed who acts as an intermediary. If the moment calls for a speech that will reach everyone, it's Reed who steps up and gives it.


He would prefer you didn't know any of this, because he's private like that. He doesn't care if he's never written about or talked about in the media. But it's important you do know it so that you can take a minute and appreciate what he means to the Ravens. He's probably the most humble superstar in the league, and if this is goodbye, then he'll be deeply missed. By fans, of course. But perhaps more so by his teammates.