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Despite loss, Ravens overcame obstacles for successful season

There is no joy in Charm City right now, because the Ravens struck out in New England, but there's really no point in dissecting Saturday night's playoff thriller against the Patriots to determine just where it all went wrong.

Sure, it would have been nice if Joe Flacco had thrown a couple of 10-yard completions and run 30 more seconds off the clock before trying to deliver another unlikely playoff victory.

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It would have been even nicer if the Ravens pass rush had been able to get to Tom Brady in the second half or the depleted Ravens secondary had been able to make a late stand after that go-ahead field goal.

For that matter, all of this would be easier to stomach if the Ravens had not been hoodwinked by evil coaching genius Bill Belichick, who stretched the substitution rules -- the NFL says he did nothing illegal -- to keep that limited secondary off balance.

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Everybody knows that, and everybody who is packing up all that purple wear would like to be making plans for next weekend's playoff party, but it's important to stay in the real world long enough to remember just how far the Ravens went under circumstances that most of us would just as soon forget.

This team was on life support two weeks ago and needed a big assist from the Kansas City Chiefs just to keep Ravens Nation from pondering the unhappy significance of back-to-back seasons without a playoff berth.

This team has been in the eye of the media hurricane for almost an entire year, dealing with the Ray Rice scandal, a string of other unseemly offseason incidents and the shocking loss of Haloti Ngata for the final month of the regular season to a drug suspension.

Throw in the interminable string of injuries that put 19 players on injured reserve, and you've got a prescription for a 4-12 season instead of an 11-7 record and a two-tier postseason run.

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Somehow, they still parlayed all that into a winning season, a very satisfying playoff victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers and a truly classic four-point loss to a very good Patriots team in Foxborough, Mass.

Does that mean anyone should be happy that the season is over? Of course not.

The Ravens were one big play away from another AFC championship game appearance, which would have been all the sweeter because of everything that was just recounted above. But this is no time to change your opinion of Flacco or turn on receiver Torrey Smith for his inability to contest that heartbreaking final interception or view the 2014 season as anything but a success.

The players and coaches will tell you the only great season is a Super Bowl season, but you know that's just football speak. Every season is an adventure, and this one had enough high drama to keep us all in suspense until there were less than two minutes left Saturday night.

The outcome may have been tough to swallow, but that's because it was another classic showdown between two of the most successful teams in the NFL. Under John Harbaugh, the Ravens have played the Patriots four times in the postseason, and this loss evened the series at two games apiece.

It's probably easier to be a Carolina Panthers fan today, because that team won its division with a losing record and wasn't expected to still be standing after a road game against the defending Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks.

The Ravens were a seven-point underdog going into Gillette Stadium, which is a pretty big spread for a playoff game, but they took it to the Patriots early and reclaimed the momentum after New England stormed back from that early 14-0 lead. The Ravens took another two-touchdown lead in the second half, but they could not slow down Brady's quick-release attack.

They actually blinked in their second-to-last possession, when they were inside the 10-yard line and had to settle for a field goal in a game in which only touchdowns would do. Flacco's second interception was a head-scratcher not because he went for broke, but because he went for broke with so much time left on the clock.

If Smith had caught that ball for a touchdown, Brady still would have had more than a minute left and needed only to get into field goal position to send the game into overtime. There was plenty of time — and downs — for the Ravens to get into the red zone and go for the win with a less risky play.

So it goes. The Ravens overachieved this year — under the circumstances — and they head into the offseason with a very clear picture of what they need to do to return to the postseason in more of a position of strength next season.

twitter.com/SchmuckStop

Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here," at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog.

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