ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — Joe Flacco leaned against a wall adjacent to the Ravens' locker room and heard his head coach take responsibility for a loss that John Harbaugh described as a "poor performance."
In a discouraging 23-20 defeat to the Buffalo Bills in front of an announced 68,296 at Ralph Wilson Stadium, the Ravens could neither run the football nor stop the run. They dropped passes, missed tackles, blew blocking and coverage assignments, committed eight penalties, attempted just nine running plays, and were just 3-of-16 on third down. They also dug themselves a 13-point halftime hole.
And the way their sixth-year quarterback saw it, none of that would have mattered if he had just stopped throwing the ball to the guys in the blue jerseys. Flacco was intercepted a career-high five times, the last one coming with under a minute to play as the Ravens (2-2) drove to midfield looking for either the game-tying or go-ahead points.
Instead, Flacco watched his pass intended for tight end Dallas Clark get deflected and end up in the hands of diving Bills linebacker Kiko Alonso. The play perfectly summed up a lost afternoon in Western New York for the Ravens who had numerous opportunities to win a game that they probably had no business being in.
"We are definitely going to get better, we have to get better," Flacco said. "A lot of that falls on me, just throwing the ball to the wrong team. If we don't do that, this game probably goes a little bit different."
Flacco finished the game 25 of 50 for 347 yards and two touchdowns, including a 10-yard score to rookie Marlon Brown that gave the Ravens a short-lived lead in the second quarter, and a 26-yard strike to Torrey Smith midway through the third quarter that pulled the Ravens within 20-14.
Even with all of Flacco's mistakes and an inability to run the ball — Flacco dropped back to pass on 31 consecutive offensive plays at one point and the Ravens ran the ball just twice in the second half — the Ravens twice had the ball in Bills' territory late in the fourth quarter with a chance to win the game, and the confidence that their quarterback would pull it off.
"We all felt that way at the end," Harbaugh said. "I felt like we were going to win the game."
Trailing 23-17 after a 74-yard completion to Torrey Smith set up Justin Tucker's 35-yard field goal, the Ravens drove the ball down to the Bills' 11. Facing fourth-and-5 from the 6-yard line, Harbaugh opted to kick the field goal and Tucker made it a 23-20 game with 4:08 to play.
Then on their next drive, they advanced to the Bills' 48 with 1:04 remaining before Alonso made the diving interception.
"We don't point fingers around here, but the last person I'm worried about is Joe Flacco," said Ravens running back Ray Rice, who made his return after missing one game with a hip injury, and gained just 17 yards on five carries. "He's a Super Bowl MVP. As long as Joe goes, we go. As bad as we played, Joe Flacco still let us march down the field."
The Bills turned Flacco's five turnovers into 13 points but his most damaging interception — at least given the final score — may have been the one he threw in the end zone to Aaron Williams on third-and-8 from the Bills' 14 early in the third quarter. Flacco was trying to hit Smith in the back of the end zone but he overthrew him while getting rushed by two Buffalo defenders. It cost Tucker an attempt at cutting into the Bills' 20-7 halftime lead.
"It's frustrating simply because we're not a team that does that and Joe's not a quarterback that typically makes picks," said Smith whose 166 receiving yards were the third most in a single game in team history. "Joe didn't flinch at all. No one on offense flinched. We never doubted for a second that with the way our defense was playing, we didn't have a chance to win the game."
Flacco was not at fault on all five of his interceptions. Three of them were probably the result of trying to make things happen when he probably would have been better off throwing the ball away. On the other two, Brown and tight end Ed Dickson played prominent roles.
Two plays after rookie wide receiver Robert Woods beat Corey Graham to haul in a 42-yard touchdown pass from rookie EJ Manuel that gave the Bills a 13-7 second-quarter lead and was the first touchdown the Ravens defense had allowed since Week 1, Flacco found Dickson in the middle of the field.
However, the pass hit off the hands of Dickson and wound up in the lap of former Ravens safety Jim Leonhard. Four plays later, Fred Jackson ran it in from 16 yards out, the touchdown giving the Bills a 20-7 lead.
"There's no excuse for it," Dickson said. "It was a ball that I probably made the catch on 48 times in my career and it happened early in the game. Mentally, it seems like a bad dream but I'll continue to grind it out and there's going to be brighter days with my success in this offense."
On his fourth interception, Flacco clearly thought Brown was going to cross the face of the linebacker. Instead his crossing route took him up the field and Flacco's throw went right to Alonso.
Flacco shouldered the blame on that one and took accountability for the loss on about five different occasions during the course of his interview. However, the Ravens clearly had other issues, starting with a ground game that gained just 24 yards against a run defense that ranked 30th in the NFL. By late in the third quarter, the Ravens abandoned the run game altogether and Rice and Bernard Pierce became spectators.
"We've got to get to the point where we can execute in the running game," Harbaugh said.
The Ravens also didn't stop the run, which is the one thing that they had consistently done well through the first three games. They had allowed just 224 rushing yards and no touchdowns on the ground coming in. On Sunday, they were gouged for 203 rushing yards on 55 total carries, including the Jackson score.
But Flacco, who was sacked four times, looked past all that. All he knew was that after a long week of preparation, which started with Bryant McKinnie and Jacoby Jones's party bus incident and included former Raven Ray Lewis questioning the team's leadership, the Ravens had multiple chances to salvage a poor performance and win. He believes that they would have too, if he would have just stopped throwing the ball to the other team.
"The result and the way we played really explains it all. You practice all week and don't play a good game. I didn't do that and we didn't do that," Flacco said. "We are just not good enough right now. I guess, that is probably the simplest explanation."