The signs of frustration and desperation were everywhere at M&T Bank Stadium, which had so many empty seats by the middle of the fourth quarter Sunday that it felt like a preseason game.
Ed Reed slammed and then kicked his helmet on the sideline after Denver Broncos wide receiver Eric Decker grabbed a 51-yard touchdown. Torrey Smith yelled in the direction of a trainer when he was told that he was done for the day with concussion-like symptoms. Cary Williams and Anquan Boldin drew penalty flags for illegal hits. Michael Oher walked off the field, grumbling about why the Ravens were throwing the ball in the game's final seconds, resulting in two Broncos' sacks.
But if there was one image that encapsulated the Ravens' 34-17 loss to the Broncos — their third straight defeat and the second straight at home — it was quarterback Joe Flacco's 80-yard sprint and unsuccessful lunge at the legs of cornerback Chris Harris.
For the Ravens, securing a division title is proving just as elusive as Harris was on the game's decisive play. Harris' 98-yard interception return for a touchdown just before halftime spearheaded a Broncos' rout and capped another disappointing performance for Flacco and the Ravens' offense which clearly has more issues than who is calling the plays.
The only positive came hours later when the Dallas Cowboys beat the Pittsburgh Steelers, 27-24 in overtime, clinching the Ravens' fifth straight playoff berth.
"We're a 9-5 football team and it feels like we're 0-14 right now," said Flacco who completed 20-of-40 passes, threw two touchdowns, turned the ball over twice and wracked up most of his 254 yards passing when the game was out of reach. "That's just the feeling that you have right after a game like this. It's going to test a lot of things in us guys. We believe we're pretty stand-up guys, tough guys, guys with character. We're going to be able to look at ourselves in the mirror when this thing is all said and done and honestly say that we are those type of guys or that we're not."
As he spoke, blood collected on the right side of Flacco's face, courtesy of several Broncos' hits on him during the afternoon. He's hardly the only Raven that looks beaten up and lost, struggling with their confidence and unable to figure out why a once comfortable lead in the AFC North is now down to one game over the Cincinnati Bengals.
They have lost three straight games for the first time since October of the 2009 season. They have dropped back-to-back home games for the first time in the John Harbaugh era and Sunday's loss was their most lopsided defeat at M&T Bank Stadium since Peyton Manning's Indianapolis Colts beat them, 44-20, on Dec. 9, 2007.
This time it was Manning's Broncos doing the damage, overwhelming the injury-depleted and mistake-prone Ravens in every facet. Denver, which has now won nine straight games to improve to 11-3, led 17-0 at halftime and 31-3 by the end of the third quarter. By then, most of the announced 71,317 had hit the exits, leaving the first couple of rows of the stadium filled with orange, a sight more appropriate next door at Camden Yards.
"As a single player, as an individual, right now I am embarrassed to come out and perform the way we have," said Reed who called punter Sam Koch, long snapper Morgan Cox and kicker Justin Tucker the Ravens' best three players in the game. "We're not the only team that lost today and we still have two more games. But as a player, I am embarrassed for our city."
Manning's teams have now beaten the Ravens nine straight times but the latest one went so far beyond the Broncos quarterback who was 17-of-28 for 204 yards and a touchdown and directed an offense that was plenty content to run the football.
There was Knowshon Moreno rushing for 118 yards and a score. There was Decker catching eight passes for 133 yards and a touchdown. There was the Broncos' defense holding the Ravens without a first down for more than 24 minutes to start the game, limiting Pro Bowl running back Ray Rice to just 41 yards of offense. Then, there was Harris stepping in front of Anquan Boldin right in front of the goal line and running it to the end zone for the back-breaking touchdown.
"I didn't really expect him to throw that out route, but he threw it to me and I just wanted to make sure I scored," Harris said. "That was a long run, but once I got to the 40, I was like, 'I just have to stride it on in.'"
Flacco was booed as he jogged back on the field to take a knee, and again as he headed into the locker room at halftime. At the very least, the Ravens should have gone into the locker room trailing no worse than 10-3 following a half in which they were thoroughly dominated. After all, they had first-and-goal from the Broncos' 4-yard-line and they had just under 40 seconds and three timeouts with which to work.
"It's kind of like calling a timeout in that situation because it's one of those things that you catch it and get out of bounds, you catch it in the end zone, or you throw it away and you live for the next down," Flacco said. "I just made a mistake."
Harbaugh acknowledged that he considered calling a timeout after Torrey Smith's 14-yard catch got the ball down to the 4-yard line. However, he liked the play call and didn't want to give Manning too much time if the Broncos were to get the ball back.
"That's coach's call. That's my call," Harbaugh said. "We run that a lot. We've done that a lot this year. We've done it over the last few years. There's a number of play calls that we have in that situation. Joe is trying to stick it in there for a touchdown. The kid made a grat play. That's what happens. That's football."
The Ravens finally got on the board on their first drive of the second half when Justin Tucker kicked a 45-yard field goal. But Manning needed just five plays to get the Broncos back in the end zone, hitting Decker in stride down the left sidelines for the 51-yard score. On the play, Reed was caught in no man's land and Williams was just beat.
"This team is in a slump," Williams said. "When you're in a slump, you try not to point fingers."
The Broncos got the ball back after another Ravens' three-and-out, and needed just four plays this time to score as Moreno was virtually untouched on a 6-yard touchdown run that made it 31-3 and started the exodus out of M&T Bank Stadium.
"This is our loss, no less than the last three losses were our losses," Harbaugh said. "We didn't get a very fast start. We had some self-inflicted issues around halftime. We couldn't get anything until late so that's where we're at. We understand that. We are going to work to improve. The most important thing to understand is that, a every goal that we have, starting with our goal which is to win the AFC North is in front of us. It's still there and every dream that we have, [including] the ultimate dream is still available to us. That's what you have to keep in mind."
But with two games left — Sunday against the New York Giants and then the following week against the Bengals — so much would have to change for them to look like legitimate contenders, starting with the offense finding a rhythm that it has lacked for weeks and the defense getting healthier. The defense played without its top three linebackers in Ray Lewis, Jameel McClain and Dannell Ellerbe, while outside linebacker Terrell Suggs' effectiveness was clearly limited by a torn right biceps.
The offense was without Pro Bowl right guard Marshal Yanda and tight end Ed Dickson and then it lost Smith and backup running back Bernard Pierce to concussions and wide receiver Tandon Doss to an ankle injury.
"It feels awful but it's about the team that gets hot right now. We're banged up," Rice said. "We are trying to find our way back healthy right now. All we need to do is get one win. There is no sugarcoating. We're a banged-up bunch. It's late in the year. It's not getting any easier. We either put it on our shoulders, get it fixed or we'll weed ourselves out like the other teams in the league."