It was all right there for the Ravens -- a chance to take a stranglehold of a playoff spot, a chance to set up a winner-take-all brouhaha for the AFC North with the rival Cincinnati Bengals next weekend, a chance to make a statement against another powerful New England Patriots team in a high-profile game.
Then Justin Tucker kicked the ball off to begin the game.
From the start, they looked overmatched and uninspired as the Patriots pushed them around. In the end, they were left looking for silver linings when reporters asked them whether anything went right in the 41-7 loss, the most lopsided of the John Harbaugh era.
Given how the Ravens had risen to every challenge over the past month while winning four straight games in four totally different ways, I have to say that I'm stunned with how they performed. They picked the worst possible time to play their worst game -- at least the first half in Denver was competitive -- and are now in trouble heading into the season finale.
The Patriots got on the board first after a questionable pass-interference penalty on Ravens cornerback Jimmy Smith gave New England first-and-goal at the 1-yard line.
Quarterback Joe Flacco, who was playing with a bulky brace protecting the sprained medial collateral ligament in his left knee, looked out of sorts in the early going and threw an ugly interception on the second drive of the game.
The Patriots pounded the Ravens defense with running backs LeGarrette Blount and Stevan Ridley while jumping out to a 17-point lead early in the second quarter. The Patriots only needed Tom Brady, one of the best quarterbacks in NFL history, to hand the ball off. When he did throw, he went 14-for-26 for 172 yards and a touchdown.
After getting shut out in the first half, the Ravens finally showed signs of life offensively in the second half. They advanced the ball into Patriots territory three times. But whether it was an errant pass on fourth down, a running back getting stuffed near the goal line or a missed field-goal attempt, they could not get onto the scoreboard.
Finally, early in the fourth quarter, Flacco plunged into the end zone from 1 yard out to make the score 20-7. But the Ravens would not threaten the rest of the evening.
The game, already ugly, became a laugher in the final minutes when the Patriots scored twice on defense to make it the most lopsided home loss in Ravens history.
The Patriots dominated the game in all phases, particularly up front on both sides of the ball, and it didn't help matters that every bounce seemingly went their way.
After the embarrassing blowout loss, the Ravens are no longer in control of their future as it relates to the playoffs. In their only likely path to the postseason, not only do they need to beat the Bengals, who are hot at home and have something left to play for, in Cincinnati this Sunday, but they also need either the Miami Dolphins or San Diego Chargers to lose to get in.
Under Harbaugh, the Ravens have never gone into Week 17 needing another team to lose to make the playoffs, something that can't sit well with Harbaugh and his players.
Flacco said the team can only worry about what it can control, but it had better leave no doubt and respond with one of its best performances of 2013. The Ravens might not make it into the playoffs either way, but at least they will know that they went down fighting, unlike Sunday, when they never showed up for the opening kickoff.
One thing that I learned
Flacco's knee injury was a bigger deal than we first thought. The quarterback got off to a sluggish start, with as many completions (one) as interceptions in the first quarter. He did not look comfortable throwing the ball, and it didn't help that the offensive line was caving in around him. On that interception, he tentatively tossed the ball instead of driving the throw downfield. He also awkwardly fell untouched for a sack. Flacco was just 5-for-10 for 52 yards at halftime, though he did look better in the second half, getting out of the pocket and making some throws on the run. Flacco finished for 260 passing yards with two interceptions. He said his knee was not a factor in his uneven performance. His play, at least in the first half, suggested otherwise. Unfortunately, the Ravens don't let us watch anything substantial at practice other than a few minutes of special teams, so it was hard to gauge the injury's impact.
Handing out game balls
After this loss, I think I'm just going to hang on to the game balls this week, if that's cool with you guys.
This week's head-scratcher
Trailing 20-0 in the fourth quarter, the Ravens moved inside the red zone, where they faced fourth-and-5. But inexplicably, Harbaugh sent out trusty kicker Justin Tucker to attempt a 37-yard field goal instead of trying to convert and keep the drive alive. The Ravens needed a touchdown there to make it a two-score game. It would have remained a three-score game with a field goal. But Harbaugh went for the points. I asked him about the decision after the game, but he declined to discuss his rationale. One might assume he wanted to avoid a shutout. If that was the case, the football gods had none of it, as Tucker uncharacteristically missed the kick.
They said it (or tweeted it)
"[Expletive] happens." -- rush linebacker Terrell Suggs, summing up the loss after the game.
The stat that stands out
Four -- straight games in which the Ravens defense has allowed a rushing touchdown. The unit had allowed just one rushing touchdown in its first 11 games.
Three (thoughts) and out
1. After six straight games without a sack, his longest stretch since 2006, Suggs finally broke through in the third quarter, bringing Brady down for his 10th sack of the season. Suggs then proceeded to perform a celebratory dance, something that seemed a little foolish considering that the Ravens trailed by 20 points at the time. Still, outside of that and a hard hit on Brady late in the second quarter, it was another quiet game for Suggs and the Ravens pass rush. Strong-side linebacker Elvis Dumervil was a nonfactor as the team had just two sacks and failed to fluster Brady the way it did in the AFC championship game. Remember when it looked as if he and Suggs were a lock to team up for 25 sacks and set the franchise record for most sacks by a pass-rushing duo? They won't even get to 20 if they can't sack Andy Dalton on Sunday.
2. Torrey Smith's late-season swoon continued against the Patriots. He bobbled a long pass from Flacco on the first drive of the game, leaving a big play on the field, and did not have a catch until the third quarter. He finished with three catches for a team-high 69 yards, much of them coming when he caught a pass and stiff-armed Patriots safety Steve Gregory while running down the right sideline. It was a decent game statistically and I'm sure Flacco's play was a factor, but the Ravens need more from the third-year speedster. The Ravens have been getting a lot of single-high looks in recent weeks with defenses playing Cover 1 or Cover 3 zones, but Smith and his fellow wideouts have not exploited it often as they should.
3. Tyrod Taylor's performance in mop-up duty should silence anyone who thought he might be a better option than a gimpy Flacco. The third-year quarterback entered the game with two minutes left. On his first play, he couldn't catch an errant snap by center Gino Gradkowski and the Patriots recovered the ball in the end zone. On the ensuing drive, Taylor scrambled three times for 39 yards, but he completed just one of his four attempts for 2 yards and threw an interception that was returned for a touchdown. Taylor is a heck of an athlete and a bright kid, but he is still unproven as a passer.