SAN FRANCISCO-- --The offensive line, already depleted before yesterday's game and further stripped during it, saved the day for the Ravens against the San Francisco 49ers. That's not just a statement of fact, it was the answer to everything asked in the locker room afterward, no matter what the question was.
That's all right. After hanging on by the scintillating final score of 9-7, they're entitled. The Ravens are 3-2 and now have a road victory. They won despite not scoring a touchdown and despite finishing the game with a line totaling three years of experience. They didn't have to beg the NFL office to let them suit up Jonathan Ogden in mid-game or send Haloti Ngata in to play good, ol'-fashioned, two-way football.
This should be encouraging to the Ravens' prospects when they have to deal with tougher opponents and tighter spots on the road.
But it isn't.
Instead, it's downright scary. The clock is ticking on them to get healthy, or speed up the growth of the replacements, or figure out how to get everybody in sync regardless of experience level, or - most of all - solve that red-zone riddle for good.
Because before you and they know it: at Pittsburgh. At San Diego. New England at home. Indy at home. At Seattle. Pittsburgh at home. Not to mention Cincinnati and Cleveland at home, teams who already have beaten them. That's the meat of the back-loaded schedule. Then, they'll have to do better than what they did yesterday.
The Ravens won't tell you that, and, realistically, they shouldn't. All the praise teammates heaped on emergency fill-ins Jared Gaither and Chris Chester is deserved. Beyond that, though, they can't afford to express anything but confidence they can win under any circumstances and never worry about appearances.
"We can't keep listening to that," Derrick Mason said when reminded they got by on field goals. "Everyone says, 'But you didn't get into the end zone.' A win's a win. If we had lost, everybody would have said, 'Why didn't you kick more field goals?' You can't please everybody. As long as everybody in this room is pleased, that's all that matters. And as long as we put ourselves in position to be somewhere at the end of the season, we're going to be happy."
Winning unwatchable games still counts, but the ugliness wasn't the problem. The problem was that the other team was gutted by injury, too, worked without its starting quarterback, tight end (like the Ravens) and left offensive tackle (like the Ravens), and still was one field goal away from potentially winning at the end.
The 49ers didn't get a first down until early in the second quarter, managed 8 yards passing in the first half and were booed at least once during every offensive possession through the middle of the third quarter. Yet they were the ones to produce the game's lone big play and score the lone touchdown, and with less timid play-calling at the end, could have given Joe Nedney a better shot than the 52-yarder he hooked with 2:37 left. (Mike Nolan, is he a branch off the Brian Billick coaching tree or what?)
You do have to credit the Ravens for grinding out two fourth-quarter drives that didn't end in points but ate up valuable time. But they also are the ones responsible for keeping it too close for comfort when the first real break of the day came their way, Ed Reed's interception in the third, the game's only turnover.
Up 6-0, in 49ers territory and ready to smack them down for good, and how did they capitalize? With 11 yards in seven plays, setting up Matt Stover for a 49-yard field goal, then giving up back-to-back plays that netted 65 yards and a touchdown.
Against teams that don't start Trent Dilfer at quarterback and that can risk more than Frank Gore off-tackle every other play, this will not do.
On a more optimistic note, they did get Steve McNair through the game healthy. Just as encouraging, McNair was one of the few Ravens willing to say out loud that, yes, merely winning by the skin of Stover's foot isn't good enough.
"We've still got a long way to go, especially in the red zone," he said after a game that was the definition of taking what the defense gave him. "But there's no one person, one call, one message - we just have to get together and put a package together and continue to improve. We still have time to work on it, and we're going to work on it. It's OK to get down there, but we have to score some points."
Five weeks into the season, the Ravens are still looking for a performance that will define them as a real contender, rather than as a team good enough to get by. That might not happen until the majority of the offensive line is old enough not to get carded.
However they do it, though, they'd better do it soon. The second-half schedule demands it.