After the Ravens dismantled the Pittsburgh Steelers last week in one of the most complete games in team history, the bandwagon was loaded with gas and everyone was jumping on. And then came the 13-7 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals on Thursday night.
Now fans are jumping off as if this were the Titanic.
Well, folks, welcome to life in the NFL, where the 2006 season has been as unpredictable as any other. A lot of people (me, too) thought the Ravens were about to go on a serious Super Bowl run in the final month of the season.
Actually, they still might do it.
The Ravens' loss is nothing more than the norm of strange things that have happened in 2006. For example, New England had been almost unbeatable at home in previous years, but the Patriots have lost three times there this season. The Jacksonville Jaguars, a possible playoff team because of their fierce defense, has lost twice to the Houston Texans. The Pittsburgh Steelers, the defending Super Bowl champions, are falling apart. The New York Jets are a surprise team with first-year coach Eric Mangini, and the New Orleans Saints are one of the best teams in the NFC.
Teams that started out strong, like the Atlanta Falcons and Denver Broncos, have fallen, and teams that started out poorly are playing well (see the Dallas Cowboys). So when the Ravens struggled Thursday night, it was par for the season, and certainly no big deal.
It was just one game in the competitive AFC, and a tough one to win on the road.
Ever since Ravens coach Brian Billick took over the offense six weeks ago, we kept hearing about the new, high-scoring offense and his inspiring play-calling.
Let's be serious. Billick deserves credit because the offense has become more competent, and it's more effective than under previous coordinator Jim Fassel. Receivers actually get open. But if you take a deeper look, a lot of the Ravens' scoring drives were set up by outstanding special teams play or turnovers from the defense, which sometimes gave them a short field. To say that the Ravens were averaging slightly more than 27 points per game simply because Billick was calling the plays was misleading.
Even Billick has suggested that the offense is a work in progress, and that showed Thursday night. Quarterback Steve McNair was erratic, but again the key for the Ravens is how well the offensive line performs. Those young guards, Jason Brown and Chris Chester, struggled against the Bengals up front, especially with big defensive tackle Sam Adams.
To compensate for their lack of experience and McNair's inconsistent play at times, the Ravens have to get a lead early and then turn running back Jamal Lewis loose. This is not a good come-from-behind team against a quality opponent.
With punt and kick returner B.J. Sams out of the game with a broken right leg suffered during the second quarter, it was surprising the Ravens didn't use second-year receiver Mark Clayton as a replacement to return punts. Clayton can't be fulltime because he is a starter, but it might have given the Ravens a spark.
Other possibilities for spot duty might be safety Ed Reed or cornerback Chris McAlister. It might be worth a try in the future instead of Corey Ivy.
After the Ravens defeated the Bengals, 26-20, on Nov. 5 in Baltimore, Cincinnati receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh said the Bengals were still the better team. Of course, the Ravens laughed at Houshmandzadeh then, but they weren't laughing Thursday night.
Houshmandzadeh had 10 catches for 106 yards, including a 40-yard touchdown catch in the third quarter. Fellow receiver Chad Johnson had eight catches for 91 yards, including one of 24 yards. Houshmandzadeh was expected to boast about the Bengals' win, but he showed a lot of class.
Sometimes when players talk a lot, they aren't always being arrogant but trying to get their teammates ready for the next game.
"I'm not going to brag and boast," Houshmandzadeh said. "I felt we were the better team, and I think we proved it. That being said, Baltimore is a heck of a team. It was a hard-fought game. We didn't turn the ball over, which I thought was a big key, and our defense played extremely well. Without the defense playing the way they played, the win doesn't happen."
Billick prefers the soft approach to practices, but there is something to be said about hard work.
Leading up to the Bengals game, both teams had three days to prepare. Bengals coach Marvin Lewis didn't give his team any days off, and his practices were much more intense than the walk-through practices Billick had Tuesday and Wednesday.
Billick also gave his team off Monday. Unfortunately, some of the offensive players took off Thursday night as well. The Bengals also did a nice job of outcoaching the Ravens.
Lewis, who has become more hands-on with the defense in the past three weeks, threw in several new blitzes, especially on the weak side, to confuse the Ravens' offensive line. The Bengals also hit the underneath patterns on offense, which they failed to do the last time they played the Ravens. If you're going to beat the Ravens, you have to spread them out and control their blitzes.
Meanwhile, the Bengals gave the Ravens the short passes, but they covered everything and were impressive tackling. Cincinnati was always one step ahead of the Ravens.
McAlister can't help himself. He is a sucker for peeking into the backfield, watching the quarterback instead of playing his receiver. We've seen it a number of times this season.
It happened again on the little flea-flicker toss-back pass from Bengals halfback Rudi Johnson to Carson Palmer, who threw the long touchdown pass to Houshmandzadeh. McAlister got caught looking into the backfield as Houshmandzadeh blew by him.
The play was actually set up by the running game, as the Bengals pierced the Ravens' defense on running plays for 5 and 15 yards before the touchdown. But there can be no excuse for McAlister, not after getting caught so many other times through the years.
Read Mike Preston's Ravens Central blog at www.baltimoresun.com/ravenscentral