For half a decade, the Ravens spoiled their faithful fans. With Joe Flacco under center and John Harbaugh wearing the head coach's headset, the Ravens went to the playoffs five years in a row, the only team to accomplish that feat over that span. They played in three AFC championship games, winning one of them along with the Super Bowl in New Orleans last winter. Flacco and Harbaugh brought necessary clutch quarterback play and stability to an organization that has mined and refined talent with the best of them.
Their remarkable run was bound to come to an end, though. Most good things do eventually. That doesn't mean it shouldn't sting, especially after a fitting loss that ended a frustrating season for a team that at times resembled the Super bunch from a season ago -- the one that you could never, ever rule out but probably did anyway -- and at others looked like a team that had no business being in the postseason conversation.
These Ravens rarely allowed their fans to get comfortable, winning five of their games by three points or less and losing a few nail-biters. But unlike past years, when they always seemed to come through when it mattered, they put forth two of their worst performances of the season while losing their final two games.
Sunday's 34-17 loss in Cincinnati had to be excruciating.
The Ravens did not play well at all. The Bengals exploited their offensive line, the team's biggest weakness all season, and battered Flacco, at one point in the second quarter leaving him clutching his injured left knee. The Ravens couldn't return the favor, as their blitzes fell flat. And inside the red zone, the most important 20 yards on each end of the field, the Bengals were better than the Ravens, who had to settle for field goals on offense and did not offer much resistance while on defense.
But the Bengals refused to run away with the game. Quarterback Andy Dalton threw four interceptions, including a real puzzler on 1st and Goal from the 1-yard line, and the team took a bunch of silly penalties.
The Ravens somehow fought back to tie the game at 17-17 in the third quarter, but the Bengals finally showed they were the better team -- a playoff-caliber team, unlike the Ravens. The Bengals quickly reclaimed their lead and their defense picked off Flacco three times in the fourth quarter, returning one for a touchdown to stomp out any remaining hope.
With two straight losses, the Ravens squandered their playoff chances while opening the door for the San Diego Chargers, 5-7 a month ago, to somehow sneak in.
Once this bitter taste leaves the mouths of the fans -- trust me, the players, coaches and front-office folks will be tasting it for longer -- I would hope that everyone appreciates how sweet things have been for the Ravens since 2008 and realize the Ravens aren't going anywhere, that this season was the anomaly, not the previous five.
Sure, this will be another offseason of change in Baltimore. A bunch of starters and contributors -- the list includes Arthur Jones, James Ihedigbo, Daryl Smith, Eugene Monroe, Michael Oher, Jacoby Jones and Dennis Pitta -- are set to become free agents. The Ravens could be forced to make tough decisions on high-priced stars such as Terrell Suggs, Haloti Ngata and Ray Rice. There could be changes on the coaching staff -- yes, embattled run game coordinator Juan Castillo could be gone.
And no, the Ravens aren't infallible. Last season, they made a bunch of changes, including trading away Anquan Boldin, and many of them did not paid off for them.
But with Flacco, Harbaugh and general manager Ozzie Newsome and his staff, the Ravens still have the framework needed to quickly build another championship contender and put themselves in position to spoil their fans again. It may take another year or two, but you can be sure the Ravens will get back there.
One thing that I learned
The offensive line needs to be overhauled this offseason. OK, fine, I knew this one already, but it was reinforced every time Flacco got speared in the sternum or sandwiched between a pair of Bengals. Flacco was only sacked twice, but the Bengals hit him a bunch of times and their pass rush knocked the Ravens offense out of rhythm all game long. The Ravens also rushed for just 47 yards. As I wrote earlier, Monroe and Oher are both free agents, and there is no way both will be back (I suspect they will push to re-sign Monroe). Left guard Kelechi Osemele is coming off back surgery, which is risky business for a big lineman. And Gino Gradkowski didn't exactly take over the center spot. The only lock to start next year is Pro Bowl right guard Marshal Yanda. Earlier this year, I wrote about building offensive lines and the experts I spoke with said continuity and familiarity are very important. In this case, though, personnel turnover might actually be a good thing.
Handing out game balls
Marlon Brown scored the game-tying touchdown in the third quarter and in the process tied Torrey Smith's franchise record for receiving touchdowns by a rookie in a single season. Bernard Pierce ran hard before the Ravens abandoned the run. Haloti Ngata had seven tackles and Justin Tucker made all three field-goal tries.
This week's head-scratcher
With struggling running back Ray Rice standing on the sideline for much of the first half, the Ravens had success running the ball with Pierce in the first half and he had a couple of nice runs on 3rd and short. But after Pierce rushed for 28 yards on five carries in the first half, they went back to Rice and only gave Pierce one carry the rest of the way. Obviously, when the game spiraled out of their control in the fourth quarter, the Ravens had to give up on running the ball and Rice, despite his shortcomings in pass protection, needed to be in the game as the receiving back. But why not stick with the hot hand in Pierce when the game was still close?
They said it (or tweeted it)
"That's it, that ends it. That stings." -- Harbaugh after the loss.
The stat that stands out
11 -- consecutive red-zone possessions on which the Ravens allowed a touchdown before Jimmy Smith picked off Dalton in the end zone in the fourth quarter. The Ravens defense had been great in the red zone early in the season, but before Smith's interception, their last red-zone stop came in Week 12 against the New York Jets.
Three (thoughts) and out
1. One of the most puzzling trends over the past month has been the disappearance of the pass rush, which was the team's biggest strength for much of this season. The Ravens did not lay a hand of Dalton when he was in the pocket as the Bengals quarterback, who has one of the NFL's quickest trigger fingers, got the ball out of his hand in a hurry or used his legs to evade the pass rush. The Ravens did not sack Dalton and they weren't even credited with a quarterback hit. No wonder the secondary got exposed on a bunch of plays. The once-feared pass-rushing duo of outside linebackers Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil were again invisible -- those two had just two sacks combined in the final seven games of the season -- and the blitzes defensive coordinator Dean Pees called couldn't hit home. Considering how fierce the pass rush was in the first half of the season, there was no bigger disappointment for the Ravens in the second half.
2. Speaking of Suggs, Dalton and the Bengals made him look bad of a few read-option runs, including Dalton's go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter. The Ravens made defending the read-option a big priority during the offseason and dedicated a period of training camp to it every three days. They also got a look at it in practice throughout the season with Tyrod Taylor running the scout team. But while Dalton will never be confused with Russell Wilson or Cam Newton, the Bengals were able to use his legs to take advantage of Suggs, who has aggressively crashed inside on many runs this season (see Reggie Bush's touchdown a couple of weeks ago). The goal-line touchdown run was a great example, as Suggs blew up the Bengals running back instead of setting the edge, allowing Dalton to run in untouched for that huge touchdown. You can be sure the Bengals saw that on tape and game-planned against Suggs to exploit it.
3. Back in the spring, Flacco talked about how the offense should benefit from the continuity of having pretty much everyone back on offense besides Anquan Boldin and Matt Birk. That did not turn out to be the case as tight end Dennis Pitta got injured, the offensive line got switched up midway through the season and players such as wide receivers Tandon Doss and Jacoby Jones and the two top running backs did not meet expectations. Flacco, of course, struggled, too, failing to elevate a mediocre supporting cast. We saw that again Sunday as Doss and Jones combined for two catches for 11 yards and Rice did not do much of anything. Wide receiver Torrey Smith was also a no-show. Look for the focus this spring to be overhauling the offense, starting with the offensive line and the wide receiver position. No doubt Flacco needs to play much better to get the Ravens back to the playoffs and live up to his massive contract, but building a solid line and adding a legitimate wide-out opposite Smith will give him a more realistic chance.