As he does each week, Childs Walker shares his five biggest takeaways from the Ravens' 25-13 loss Sunday to the Houston Texans at NRG Stadium.
1. The Ravens still might make the playoffs, but it's hard to feel they deserve it.
It was easy to shrug last week when the Ravens struggled to put away the hapless Jacksonville Jaguars at home. Almost every playoff team has to survive a few clunkers, after all.
But this performance in Houston was different and not merely because the Ravens lost. They had a chance to maintain control of their fate against a quarterback, Case Keenum, who was on another team's practice squad seven days earlier. You couldn't tee up a much better scenario.
Not only couldn't the Ravens take advantage; they never seemed competitive. It was their emptiest, most dispiriting performance of an erratic season.
It's hard to find words to sum up how terribly the Ravens played on offense Sunday.
For much of the season, I thought I might be watching the best, most balanced attack in team history. Gone were the anemic rushing attempts, poor pass protection and ill-advised throws that doomed the 2013 team.
Justin Forsett reeled off 20-yard runs like Barry Sanders reincarnated. The offensive line played as well as any in football. Joe Flacco delivered the most consistent performance of his career.
And somehow, all that progress was lost in Houston.
Who gets the blame? An offensive line that couldn't control the line of scrimmage against a middling defense? An uncharacteristically rattled Flacco? An offensive coordinator, Gary Kubiak, who couldn't find any schematic answers in his return to Houston?
All of the above, I guess.
I don't expect the Ravens to be emotionally crushed by their ugly setback.
As we've discussed many times, John Harbaugh and the team's veteran stars do an excellent job fighting for what's left of a season. The Ravens face a Week 17 game they should win against the collapsing Cleveland Browns. The San Diego Chargers, meanwhile, face a tougher assignment on the road in Kansas City. So yes, the Ravens still have plenty to play for.
I'm not usually big on the word "deserve." The world shakes out how it shakes out. A lousy team will make the playoffs from the NFC South this year. A few good ones will sit home. There's no star of justice guiding the season to some appropriate result.
But watching the Ravens take multiple steps back against a beatable opponent in a game they badly wanted, I got no sense of a team completing a satisfying journey.
Instead, they looked lost.
2. Joe Flacco was unusually disoriented by Houston's pressure.
Look, the guy isn't going to get through a season without a few stinkers that make us question whether he's a franchise quarterback. Those games are as intrinsic to the Flacco experience as his huge arm or his unimpeachable durability.
I guess what surprised me was how rattled the generally unflappable quarterback looked so early in the Houston game. I expect Flacco to make mistakes of aggression, especially when the running game isn't clicking. But this was something else, a discombobulation only partially captured by his ghastly 41.7 passer rating.
Setting aside J.J. Watt, destroyer of planets, the Texans' defense actually isn't that great against either the run or pass. But Houston's front seven completely controlled the line of scrimmage in the first half. The Ravens' early attempts to establish a running game amounted to nothing. And after taking a few hits, Flacco looked as uncomfortable as he had since his lowest moments in 2013.
Over and over, he threw hastily, as if he had no faith in his line to keep Watt and company off him. Flacco's receivers dropped a few balls but, honestly, his timing seemed so far off that it was hard to blame anyone else for his 3 of 18 first half.
On one of Flacco's last attempts before halftime, he had tight end Owen Daniels wide open for a potential first down. With plenty of space to operate, Flacco inexplicably threw from an awkward stride and floated the ball well out of Daniels' reach.
It was a puzzling microcosm of his worst stretch of the season.
The Ravens' first-half stats painted a picture of stunning ineptitude -- 28 plays for 31 yards, two first downs compared to 12 for Houston, two turnovers, 0-for-7 on third down.
Flacco's third interception, in the third quarter, wasn't his fault; Torrey Smith fell down. But even as his numbers improved in the second half, he rarely found any synergy with his receiving corps.
3. The Ravens' running game suddenly feels broken.
I was surprised a week ago how effectively Jacksonville disrupted the Ravens' usual run-pass balance. But I figured it was an anomalous case of a solid run defense loading up along the line of scrimmage to put a disproportionate burden on Flacco.
The analysts at Pro Football Focus still gave the Ravens solid run-blocking grades, laying the blame for subpar production more on a gimpy Forsett than on his linemen.
Anyhow, the Ravens tried to establish the run early against Houston, with almost no success. And as the game got away from them, they became more and more dependent on Flacco.
Watt was as great as you'd expect, tossing Ravens tackle Rick Wagner around like a high school kid and pursuing every play 'til he could pursue no more. The guy feels more like a Marvel character than a flesh-and-blood man.
But this wasn't all Watt. His generally unremarkable teammates combined for three non-Watt tackles for losses and six non-Watt quarterback hits. The Ravens appeared confused by the Texans' blitzes at times and physically overmatched at others.
Houston controlled the middle of the field, managing to clog running lanes while also attacking Flacco up the gut, where the Ravens' line had been strongest for most of the year.
Forsett, who probably is more banged up than we know, managed just 19 yards, and the Ravens rushed for just 33 yards as a team. The less Houston's front seven had to worry about any other threat, the more the Texans gunned for Flacco.
Whether you put that on Forsett, the blockers or the mighty Watt, we now have two weeks of evidence the Ravens are running in the wrong direction.
4. Terrell Suggs doesn't get enough credit for his intelligence.
When the big picture is so unsightly, look to the smaller moments.
I'm thinking specifically of a play in the second quarter, when Keenum threw up his arms in some elaborate effort to distract from a direct snap to Houston's star runner, Arian Foster.
The play appeared promising, except Suggs guessed what was happening instantly. Instead of dashing in on Keenum, the Ravens outside linebacker stayed locked where he was and pushed Foster to a harmless outside dash.
This was no anomaly. Suggs detects these bits of trickery as well as anyone in football, often emerging as the one guy in perfect position to thwart a reverse or an odd screen.
Given Suggs' brash personality and reputation as a pass rusher, he's treated more as a force of nature than a football sage. But this far into his career, he's playing at a Pro Bowl level as much because of his brain as his body.
5. Strangely, the Ravens' secondary deserved little blame for this meltdown.
All season, we've talked about the secondary as an Achilles' heel for an otherwise balanced contender. And yet, even as the Ravens collapsed on multiple fronts in a crucial late-season loss, their pass coverage wasn't that bad.
Houston receiver Andre Johnson hurt the Ravens on the game's first drive, beating Rashaan Melvin over the top for 35 yards, then converting two easy underneath routes to help set up a field goal.
After that, however, Johnson and running mate DeAndre Hopkins did little damage against Ravens cornerbacks Melvin and Lardarius Webb.
Webb covered as well as he has all season, producing his second consecutive strong game. Perhaps he's finally healthy. It's a shame his efforts have been obscured by two of the team's weaker all-around performances.
Melvin also has become a pleasant surprise as the latest man up for this injury-gutted group. Almost every time a pass went the rookie's way, he was right there in his man's face.
Keenum isn't Philip Rivers or Drew Brees. Those guys might have punished the Ravens in a way he couldn't.
But as we pick apart this mess, it's worth noting that the Ravens' most maligned unit held up its end.