Last season, when they were the ones left standing on the mountaintop when all was said and done, the Ravens seemed to relish winning games with a high degree of difficulty. There was the 4th-and-29 play in San Diego. The miracle at Mile High. Those furious final moments in the Superdome in New Orleans.
This season, the Ravens are forcing themselves to be escape artists even more often. But their straitjacket straps have been too tight, their chains unshakable, the glass walls of their water tanks unbreakable.
Halfway through the season, the defending Super Bowl champions are slowly drowning. They have no one to blame but themselves. The season started with promise, but the Ravens have dropped four of their past five games. They trailed at halftime in each of those games, Sunday's stunning 24-18 loss to the Cleveland Browns included. Now their playoff hopes could run out of oxygen by early December.
We knew the Ravens were flawed. Even after what seemed like a significant win over the Houston Texans in Week 3, we saw that the running game was a mess, that the Ravens really missed Dennis Pitta and that the defense was good but far from perfect. The Ravens have talent, maybe as much as the team that stunned the NFL by winning the Super Bowl last season, but they aren't good enough to win when they spot their opponents early double-digit leads and squander opportunities throughout the game.
The Ravens have scored first in just two games this season and they have trailed in every one of their eight games, sometimes playing catch-up for most of the game.
Sunday's game was the same old, same old for the Ravens, who seem to be following the same script every week. With quarterback Joe Flacco gradually throwing his way into a rhythm, the offense went three-and-out on three of its first four possessions. The Browns took advantage and a 14-3 lead in the second quarter. The Ravens clawed their way back into the game. But miscues like that third-quarter muffed punt set them back and the defense couldn't get the late stop they needed for a third straight game.
A season ago, it seemed like the resilient defense would always find a way to get that stop. And when it mattered, Flacco somehow found a way to rally the Ravens to a victory. But it's time to stop talking about last season. It's over. This is a new team, one that has a similar flair for the dramatic but hasn't had the ability to pull it out.
Now the Ravens are in more danger than they have ever put themselves in before during coach John Harbaugh's tenure. They are 3-5 and in third place behind the Cincinnati Bengals and the Browns. Yes, the Browns. Really. And if they lose to the Bengals next weekend, they can kiss their reign of the AFC North goodbye. Their margin for error for simply making the playoffs at this point is now razor thin, and to make matters worse, the Ravens seem to be regressing with each and every loss.
Even Harry Houdini himself might back away from the trap the Ravens have just climbed into. But after an unthinkable loss to the Browns, a team they had not lost to in six long years before Sunday, the Ravens are stuck. The straps have been buckled, the chains have been locked and the chilly water in the glass tank is up to their chins.
One thing that I learned
Flacco is a good quarterback, but he isn't capable of carrying this offense on his back. Make no mistake, Flacco struggled mightily in the first 25 minutes of the game. He missed open receivers and took some sacks in key situations. His erratic play early helped contribute to another slow start for the offense. But Flacco also came close to willing the Ravens to a comeback. He took a beating in the pocket and wasn't afraid to venture out of it to scramble for a first down or extend a play long enough to attempt a pass. Ultimately, he wasn't able to get it done, but it's hard to fault him entirely for another uneven performance. The Ravens have no running game, which allows defenses to play two deep safeties against him. The offensive line did not protect him well enough Sunday. And outside of Torrey Smith, his pass-catchers are inconsistent, especially the tight ends, who combined for two catches for 17 yards. Flacco is just not yet at the level where he can hoist a group like this over the top.
Handing out game balls
Rookie wide receiver Marlon Brown continues to be a viable target in the red zone and his two touchdown catches Sunday give him a team-leading five on the season. He gets the offensive game ball. The defensive game ball goes to cornerback Jimmy Smith, who played well before exiting the game with a groin injury in the second half.
This week's head-scratcher
Flacco throws one of the best deep balls in the NFL, but that duck he threw late in the second quarter looked like it got blown out of the sky with a shotgun. Flacco was looking for wide receiver Jacoby Jones, but the ball appeared to slip out of his hand and never looked right. The pass was picked off by Browns cornerback Joe Haden. It was an uncharacteristically ugly throw for the quarterback, though he did complete a 46-yard deep ball down the middle of the field to Torrey Smith on their next drive.
They said it (or tweeted it)
"The best way to get out of a hole is to grab a shovel and dig." -- defensive tackle Arthur Jones, who has apparently never been stuck in a hole, but you get his point.
The stat that stands out
25 -- rushing yards for Flacco, which led the Ravens. Ray Rice had 17 yards on 11 carries and Bernard Pierce had 11 on six. Those two averaged just 1.6 yards per carry.
Three (thoughts) and out
1. That second-quarter touchdown by Browns slot receiver Davone Bess was one of the nicest I've seen all season. On a 3rd-and-3 play at the Baltimore 20-yard line, Bess shook nickel cornerback Corey Graham with a sharp whip route and then broke cornerback Lardarius Webb's ankles -- not literally, people -- with a sweet juke in the open field. That was like something out of the AND1 streetball tour. All that was missing was a guy with a microphone calling Bess his nephew while dancing at midfield after the touchdown. Webb is typically one of the NFL's most reliable tacklers among cornerbacks, but Bess got the best of him and the Ravens on that play.
2. The Ravens tried something new in an effort to get their running game going. On a handful of plays, the Ravens lined up in the pistol formation that took the NFL by storm a season ago. Basically, Flacco stood a few yards behind the center and the running back lined up behind him instead of next to him. We can assume the Ravens tried this because they weren't pleased with the results they got when trying to run out of the shotgun formation. In the pistol, the backs start off further back in the backfield, but at least they get a running start. I doubt we see the Ravens suddenly switch to a read-option offense with Flacco, but we could see more of the pistol going forward.
3. Haloti Ngata sure had a quiet first half of the season, didn't he? Ngata, one of the team's highest-paid players, was moved to nose tackle this season. When it comes to eating up double teams so the linebackers can make tackles, Ngata is doing his job. But he hasn't been making the kind of impact plays that got him selected to four Pro Bowls. He hasn't been tackling ballcarriers behind the line of scrimmage like we're used to seeing. He has just 1.5 sacks after recording at least five in each of the past three seasons. And he hasn't forced a fumble. Nose tackle isn't a position that gets you on the stat sheet, but for what the Ravens are paying Ngata, they need more.