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Five Things We Learned in the Ravens' 23-20 loss

1. After six weeks of football, we've learned this is a good team, but not a great one. They've shown flashes of being great, but they're not there yet. And to be honest, that's not a bad place to be. It might even keep them hungry.

If you're a Ravens fan and you're reading this, it means someone probably talked you off the ledge after that infuriating fourth-quarter collapse. And that's a good thing, because:

A. I'd prefer that you stay alive and continue reading The Baltimore Sun. (Especially this column.)

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B. Although losses like this one tend to sting a bit, when you wake up on Monday morning — and maybe you're even reading this on Monday — you'll hopefully see the big picture.

First, the positives. The Ravens are now 4-2 in a season where they've played 66 percent of their games on the road. They may not be the best team in the NFL, but at this point in time, we can credibly argue they're more balanced and more capable of making a Super Bowl run than they've been at any point during the past three seasons. They can't always run the ball, and they can't always throw the ball, but they can do both at times. Joe Flacco, at times today, looked like a really good NFL quarterback. (At times.)

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Did they have the Patriots on the ropes today? Absolutely. Should they have put them away? Of course. A great team would have delivered a knockout and sent Tom Brady to the canvas, where I suspect he would have flailed his arms like a girl and brushed his hair out of his eyes. But before we flog some of the play calling, the special teams play, the offensive line or Le'Ron McClain's lack of composure (and we will get to all that) I want you to keep one thing in mind:

The Patriots are a pretty good football team, one that was coming off a bye week, with a Hall of Fame quarterback, and they have a coach who might be as good at game-planning as anyone in the history of football.

Bill Belichick knew the right adjustments to make to close down passing lanes in the fourth quarter, how to free up receivers in the passing game (make the Ravens linebackers chase), and what stunts to run to make it difficult for the Ravens to run the ball. You don't have to love Belichick, but before you gripe about the Ravens coaching staff, you should probably acknowledge the guy on the other side of the field. If you gave Belichick some illegally obtained spy satellite footage and two weeks to prepare, there is a decent chance he could defeat the Taliban in Afghanistan. He's pretty good at his job.

Did the Ravens blow this game? I suppose. They were tentative on both sides of the ball in the fourth quarter. They took no real risks, and seemed to be hoping the Patriots would make a mistake. They couldn't control the line of scrimmage when it really mattered, and that was the difference.

But the Patriots also made them tentative at times. Football does not occur in a vacuum. The Ravens still have to figure out how to close out games, but overall, it's not the end of the world. Lot of season left, folks.

Now, all that said ...2. Cam Cameron said a few weeks ago that audibles were overrated, and that it's more about executing the play. It's a debatable point, I suppose, but let me point out an example today where audibling absolutely could have really helped the Ravens.

With 9:15 to go in the fourth quarter, the Ravens faced a 3rd-and-short, leading 20-17. Their offense desperately needed to pick up a first down. Joe Flacco came to the line of scrimmage, looked across the line and saw three defensive tackles over the ball, sandwiched so close to Matt Birk's face, I suspect they could have counted his nose hairs. Then, for reasons impossible to justify or explain, Le'Ron McClain went in motion and came to a stop behind Marshal Yanda (just typing that sentence has me scratching my head), leaving an empty backfield.

Now, it was clear at this point that Flacco was going to run a quarterback sneak. He was leaning so far forward, it was really the only option. The Patriots were pinching the A gaps so much — the A gap is what we call the gaps between the guards and center, in case you're unfamiliar with the term — they left Ben Grubbs and Chris Chester almost uncovered. The linebackers had walked up to within a few yards of the ball. Gerard Warren and Vince Wilfork, who probably weigh 700 pounds between them, looked like two rhinoceroses ready to charge. There is simply no way a quarterback sneak up the back of the center was going to work, not with an aging center and two undersized guards leading the way.

Now maybe the play clock was running down, and maybe the formation was so complicated that it would have been difficult to change. (That's why motioning your fullback out of the backfield makes so little sense to me.) But this is exactly the kind of play where audibles are not overrated. Audibles, in fact, are your best friend. If Flacco really does have the freedom to audible, I wonder if he has the confidence to do so. Maybe he's so focused on his mechanics, his reads and getting the play called, he forgets that he has the power to change a flawed play if it's clearly not going to work. At that point, the way the Patriots were lined up, almost any audible would have had a better chance of succeeding. Instead, they went nowhere and punted, which led to the game-tying field goal for New England.

(I want to give former Ravens lineman Wally Williams a brief shout out, because he was thinking exactly what I was thinking about audibles and said similar things to what I just wrote on the WJZ broadcast after the game. I now see my colleague Mike Preston also seems to have had similar thoughts.)

I thought Cam Cameron called a great game for three quarters. Flacco played, for three quarters, one of his best games as a Raven if you consider his footwork, his mechanics, the situation, and the way he was reading the field. But everything they did in the fourth quarter and overtime felt hesitant. Nervous. Tentative.

I still believe Cameron is a very good offensive mind whom fans try to scapegoat far too much. For example, the play where Flacco fakes two throws, then turned to hit Todd Heap running uncovered down the middle of the field? Brilliant. The way he got Derrick Mason open repeatedly in the first half by moving him around and taking advantage of matchups? Impressive.

But it's fair to point out his flaws, too. Sometimes the smartest thing you can do in short yardage is run a dive between the guard and tackle, which for whatever reason, he clearly does not like to do. You don't need to draw up plays where Haloti Ngata goes out for a pass, or Todd Heap lines up wide and tries to catch a slant, or Anquan Bolidn runs a fade out of the end zone, or Le'Ron McClain goes in motion, leaving an empty backfield.

Coaches tend to get frustrated with criticism in hindsight, because anyone can point their finger and say "I told you so!" when things go wrong. But that quarterback sneak was a play that never had a chance. Perhaps the next step in Flacco's maturation will be to know when to trust his own eyes, and not Cameron's.

3. Speaking of coordinators, I think it's safe to say Greg Mattison has fallen in love with the three-man rush a bit too much. And Baltimore may never fall in love with him as a result.

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I've said this before, and I won't apologize for it just because he's the Jets coach, but I love Rex Ryan. I love his style of football, because it mirrors his personality in many ways. He's going to be himself, and let others react to him. That's what great defenses do, I think. They don't react and contain, they blitz and pressure and run downhill at you, forcing you to make mistakes so they can holler and scream and thump their chest while they stand over your crumpled body.

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Mattison obviously has a different perspective. His style is more chess match than street fight. That doesn't mean his style is more intellectual than Ryan's, because Ryan is extremely smart about finding different ways to bring pressure and different guys who can do it. The Ravens, under Mattison, don't like to gamble. They like to limit mistakes and slowly squeeze their opponents like a boa constrictor. Ryan is more like the lion hunting antelope.

I've defended Mattison's style in the past — though only to a point — and I think the statistics show the Ravens defense is still pretty good. Right now, there are about 29 teams that would love to have the Ravens defense.

But in a way, having Mattison follow Ryan as the Ravens defensive coordinator is a bit like getting left by a supermodel you dated for a few years. She had a funny, wise-cracking personality, but you didn't really want to marry her, considering the way she swore in front of your mom and spilled chili fries on the couch. You then follow it up by dating a nice, kind, somewhat plain, and at times kind of boring and frustrating woman who wants to stay at home a lot. And all you can think about on Sunday afternoons is: maybe it was frustrating at times in the past, maybe she was a little bit crazy, but at least it was exiting. At least you felt like you were living. This isn't living.

That's what watching the Ravens rush three down linemen on one of the game's most crucial plays — Brady's touchdown to Deion Branch — had to feel like for Baltimore fans. If the Ravens blitz three guys there, sending six total, and Brady buys enough time and still throws a touchdown as he gets hit, you reach down and shake his delicately manicured hand. But at least you made him do something amazing to beat you.

Dropping eight in coverage, letting him have nearly six seconds to throw, then watching him hit Branch in the corner (after he ran all the way across the field) while two of your linemen get double teamed isn't forcing him to do something amazing. There are a lot of quarterbacks who can do that.

It's one thing to drop eight if you're in the middle of the field if you don't want to get beat deep. It's another thing entirely to do it on the 5-yard line. I'm not going to pretend I know as much about football as Mattison knows, but I fail to see how that play call made sense. He put his guys in an unfair position there.

Now, let this please be the last time I'm ever forced to compare Rex Ryan and Greg Mattison to beautiful women to make a point.

4. Tom Brady is a great quarterback who makes big plays in crucial moments. If I had one game to win, and the fate of the world depended on it, I might pick him to be my quarterback. Now, all that said, let me also point out that he's turned into the one of the game's biggest whiners.

I'll make this brief. I really don't care about Brady's ridiculous haircut. If he wants to look like David Cassidy on The Partridge Family, or as Bill Simmons pointed out, like he and Gisele are way, waaaay too into HBO's True Blood, that's his business. It would actually be fun to have a long-haired quarterback in a league so rigid about conformity.

But the little tantrums he throws and cheap shots he takes when he doesn't get his way are getting ridiculous. Leave that to Philip Rivers, please.

Neither Jim Nantz nor Phil Simms saw it, so it didn't get much attention on the television broadcast, but in the first half, on the reverse to Brandon Tate, Brady clearly tried to dive at Terrell Suggs' knee when Suggs was well behind the play. I'm not even positive Suggs saw it happen, because Brady mostly missed, but for a guy who had a major knee injury of his own, that was bush league. Yes, I know it's borderline legal, but it's weak. And I'd say the same thing if Peyton Manning or Drew Brees or Joe Flacco did it. He tried to do it again in the second half to Dawan Landry on a similar play, but thought better of it.

Between his intentionally low knee blocks and Brandon Meriweather's blatant spearing of Todd Heap, it was not exactly the Pats' finest hour. (I still can't believe Meriweather wasn't ejected. He should have been. It was reminiscent of some of Chuck Cecil's dirtiest work. He'll likely be heavily fined.) Boston media reports were claiming Michael Oher punched someone at the bottom of a pile and it went unnoticed, and though I didn't see it, I don't have a hard time believing it because he had to be frustrated by how poorly he was playing. But quarterbacks should be above that kind of nonsense. Especially Hall of Fame quarterbacks.

I'm sure if asked about it, Brady would stand there with a bit of a smirk on his face and say it's his job to make sure no one trails the play from behind, and that he's a football player, and his job is to get the guy blocked however he can. But if that's the case, then he shouldn't be flapping his arms like a drowning flamingo, and throwing a complete tantrum when Haloti Ngata hits him in the chest while he's throwing the ball because he wants a flag for a phantom roughing the passer. It's just absurd to beg the referees for special treatment — including pointing at his knee a year ago and asking the referee to throw the flag when Suggs grazed him — but then feeling like it's OK to dive at Suggs knee when he's not looking.

This isn't the Brady I once defended in every debate about him and Peyton Manning and, in general, greatly admired from afar. This version is a weasel.

(Now, perhaps some goof named Sully will read this column and blast me on a Boston radio show this week, but I'll take solace in the fact that, deep down, he — and maybe even Brady — will know I'm telling the truth.)

5. Poor special teams teams play and lack of composure by Le'Ron McClain helped this one slip away late.

Let's make this one quick, because it's already a manifesto in length. It doesn't matter who is back there catching punts, either Tom Zbikowski or Chris Carr. They have to start catching the ball before it bounces. The field position the Ravens are losing on punt returns is really hurting them, and it definitely hurt them in overtime. Poor kickoff returns also hurt the Ravens, and Billy Cundiff's kick off out of bounds didn't help either.

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McClain's punch to the face didn't help either. I know it stinks when a guy is in your face, saying all kinds of mean things about your mother, and football is an emotional game. I'm not a scold. I get it. I would have a hard time walking away, too. It's infuriating when someone pokes you in the eye, spits in your face, taunts you or pushes you after the whistle. But you still have to walk away. You can't smack a guy in the facemask for disrespecting you at a crucial point in the game.

The Ravens have actually been a lot better about that this year. They have, for the most part, avoided dumb penalties. So it's something McClain obviously knows. But knowing it and living by it are two different things.

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