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What's causing Ravens 4th-quarter woes?

John Harbaugh looked emotionally drained after the Ravens' chaotic 34-28 win at Houston on Monday night, perhaps the culmination of his team blowing a fourth-quarter lead for the eighth time this season.

"Do we have things we are worried about? Do we have things we need to work on? Absolutely," Harbaugh said. "But at this point in time in the season, you are what you are and you have to find a way to win."

And what are the Ravens? At 9-4, they're certainly a playoff-caliber team. But they're also maddening.

The Ravens, now the AFC's No. 5 seed in the playoff race, can beat up the NFL's best teams for a half and sometimes three quarters. When it comes to the fourth quarter, there are so many strange and unbelievable twists that it seems like the Ravens are stuck in an M. Night Shyamalan movie.

The only certainty with the Ravens in the fourth quarter is the uncertainty. Their underachieving offense can win games (like quarterback Joe Flacco's last-minute touchdown pass to T.J. Houshmandzadeh in Pittsburgh) and give them away (Flacco's fumble against the Steelers two games ago when the Ravens didn't block a blitzing Troy Polamalu).

Their once-dominant defense can crumble at the end (like cornerback Josh Wilson getting pushed to the ground by the Atlanta Falcons' Roddy White for the game-winning score) and rescue the team from defeat (Wilson's 12-yard interception return for a touchdown in overtime at Houston).

The Ravens have relinquished fourth-quarter leads six times with less than five minutes left in regulation, including three times in the final 30 seconds. The Texans tied the game with 21 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter on a 5-yard touchdown pass to Andre Johnson and a two-point conversion.

It could be difficult for the Ravens to fix this recurring flaw 13 weeks into the season. But the players are willing to try.

"We're in a pursuit of perfection, and as the game goes, we know we're going to catch excellence in some way," wide receiver Derrick Mason said. "We're going to keep on fighting and keep on leaning on one another. We're going to continue to fight for these last three games and see where we end up in January, and hopefully we'll end up in the postseason."

The Ravens' narrow win at Houston might be the biggest nail-biter of the season, and that's assuming their fans have any nails left.

After storming out to a 28-7 lead at the start of the third quarter, the offense managed 61 yards in the second half and failed to move the ball past Houston's 38-yard line.

The defense gave up back-to-back touchdown drives of 99 and 95 yards in the fourth quarter. No team in the NFL had driven 95 yards or more consecutively since the 2000 St. Louis Rams' Greatest Show on Turf.

Asked whether he was frustrated about letting the Texans get back into the game, linebacker Ray Lewis said: "What frustration is there after a win? We want to keep bringing up all of this old stuff. Last week, we played a hell of a game defensively and almost shut them out and guess what you all said? 'Oh, the Ravens blow one.' We didn't blow it" Monday.

Here are factors contributing to the Ravens' failure to hold fourth-quarter leads:

Coaching decisions on offense. The Ravens continue to take risks by passing late in games instead of trying to run the ball and take time off the clock.

On third-and-2 at the Texans' 44-yard line, the Ravens chose to throw the ball with a 28-20 lead and 2:54 left in the fourth quarter. Houston cornerback Glover Quin broke up the pass to Anquan Boldin and the Ravens had to give the ball back to the Texans. As a result, the Ravens were unable to run an additional 40 seconds off the clock, which is important considering Houston tied the game with 21 seconds remaining.

It was an even bolder decision when taking into account what happened one game before against Pittsburgh. The Ravens made the game-changing turnover when they decided to throw the ball on second-and-5 at midfield with a four-point lead and 3:22 remaining in the game.

Harbaugh said there was discussion over whether the Ravens should throw or run the ball at Houston on Monday night.

"I wanted a first down there," he said. "It wasn't so much about the clock as about getting a first down. And our offensive coaches felt like that was the play. And you know what, we had a chance. And we just didn't get it done. You can run it and get stuffed, too. But we need to convert."

Coaching decisions on defense. Harbaugh acknowledged that the Ravens played defense differently in the second half with a 21-point lead. The Ravens chose to go with a three-man pass rush and drop eight defenders into coverage.

The decrease in pressure allowed Houston quarterback Matt Schaub to pick apart the defense, completing 24 of 41 passes for 242 yards after halftime as Houston scored the final 21 points of regulation.

Harbaugh, who later said the Ravens were getting more pressure with their three-man front than their with blitzes, explained that he didn't want to give up the quick, big-play touchdown by putting his cornerbacks in one-on-one situations against the likes of Johnson.

"That's just not something we thought was smart," Harbaugh said. "Make them go the distance."

The Ravens had two sacks in the first half but none in the second half or overtime.

Asked about the lack of blitzes in the second half, linebacker Terrell Suggs said, "I say, 'Let's win the game.' I believe we can win the game no matter what play is called. I just line up and play and get after it."

Exhausted defense. The Ravens have given up 105 points in the fourth quarter, which is already the third most in team history. It's been a problem of attrition more than anything.

During the past two games, the Ravens' defense was on the field twice as long as the other teams' defense in the second half. At Houston, the Texans ran 51 offensive plays in the second half while the Ravens' offense ran 17 plays.

Harbaugh said on his weekly radio show Tuesday that he should have used a timeout before the Texans' game-tying two-point conversion to give his defense a break. At the time, he wanted to save his timeouts for when the offense got back onto the field.

"Looking back at that one, that would have been a good thing to do," Harbaugh said. "I would have rather used a timeout to give our guys a blow."

Lack of a running game. The Ravens traditionally have prided themselves on closing out games by running the ball down the throat of opposing defenses. It didn't matter if the other team stacked eight or nine defenders in the box. The offensive line pushed them back, allowing running backs to churn out yards and take chunks of time off the clock.

That isn't a reliable option anymore for the Ravens, who are tied for the second worst rushing average in the NFL (3.6 yards per carry). In the second half against the Texans, the Ravens were held to 18 yards on eight carries, a 2.3-yard average.

"Yeah, when you are up like that, we don't want the game to have to come down to the fourth quarter," Flacco said.

jamison.hensley@baltsun.com

twitter.com/jamisonhensley

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