This was a sneaky big game in the AFC North race, even though we have half a season to go. Had the Ravens won — and the game was on the table for them despite a raft of mistakes and injuries — they would have become strong favorites to take the division. Instead, the race is up in the air, with the Bengals perhaps holding a slight advantage because they're 2-0 against the Ravens.
The Ravens will likely remain a solid playoff bet when the latest projections come out next week, but they could have made their path a whole lot easier by holding a late lead in Cincinnati.
It was a terrifically entertaining battle, with at least three startling momentum shifts in the fourth quarter. You had remarkable defensive plays from Haloti Ngata and Matt Elam, a great catch by Cincinnati's Mohamed Sanu to set up the deciding score and a questionable penalty call on Steve Smith to negate the Ravens' last, best chance. It felt similar to the Bengals' opening win in Baltimore, only better.
But all that drama obscured a deeply flawed performance by the Ravens in a game they surely wanted badly. The team that has terrorized opposing quarterbacks and played spotless offense in its best outings was nowhere in evidence.
Instead, we got pass rushers who struggled against a top-notch offensive line and a Joe Flacco who put his team in a hole with poor decision making.
So who are the 2014 Ravens? Are they a team that dominates weak opponents but can be forced into sloppy play by an equal foe? A promising work in progress? A fringe playoff contender too inconsistent to make a deep run?
After they faltered in Cincinnati, we still have a lot to learn.
I hate to be too simplistic about it, but the pattern has been clear throughout the first half of this season. The Ravens have moved the ball effectively in every game. But they're 1-3 in games where they've committed multiple turnovers, 4-0 in games where they've committed one or fewer.
It was hard to tell what Joe Flacco saw when he threw an interception to halt the Ravens' first drive of the second half. Four Bengals surrounded Torrey Smith in zone coverage. And Flacco either didn't see one of them or mistakenly thought he could force his pass through the thicket.
That turnover set up the Bengals to go ahead 14-6.
On the Ravens' next possession, Smith got popped in the face and couldn't follow through on a quick timing route, leaving Bengals cornerback Adam Jones free to pick off Flacco. It wasn't clear if Flacco had time to stop and look for another target or if he was just unlucky. Regardless, the miscue handed Cincinnati another easy scoring opportunity.
Flacco read the defense poorly for much of the day, often attempting difficult passes when simpler plays seemed available. Marvin Lewis' Bengals have always troubled him, so maybe it was a simple as that.
The performance was Flacco's worst of a generally strong season, and it will surely stick in his craw all the more because the game was winnable. "I put us in some bad positions," he said simply.
3. Haloti Ngata is still a remarkable athlete.
For several seasons now, Ngata has faced criticism from a vocal subset of Ravens fans who believe he's in suspect physical shape and not playing up to his $48.5-million contract.
I find the criticism overly harsh, given that Ngata's anchoring of the interior line is never going to show up in individual stats. He's still excellent against the run, according to Pro Football Focus' play-by-play grades. That said, he'd be the first to tell you he's not the same physical phenomenon he was at 25. The crazy displays of big-man athleticism and the famous video clip of Ngata playing rugby are no longer there week after week.
Every so often, however, we see the dancing bear of old. Ngata evoked the past at a critical juncture in Cincinnati, when he chased down Andy Dalton in open space and forced a fumble to set up a go-ahead score by Lorenzo Taliaferro. Pair that with Ngata's two interceptions from earlier in the year, and it's fair to say the aged grizzly can still tango.
Ngata also got back to his more typical work with a key stuff on the Ravens' failed goal-line stand late in the game.
It was a fun performance from a guy who'll go down among the most memorable of all Ravens.
4. The Ravens' pass rush hasn't been great against top offensive lines.
The sack firm of Dumervil, Suggs & McPhee looked awesome against the mediocre offensive lines of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Atlanta Falcons. But save for Haloti Ngata's key strip sack, the Ravens hardly bothered Andy Dalton in the crucial moments of Sunday's loss.
Perhaps that's no surprise, given the Bengals' offensive line protects its quarterback as well as any unit in the league. Left tackle Andrew Whitworth, in particular, has to go on any list of the NFL's best offensive linemen.
I guess the more troubling reality is the Ravens' rushers haven't been productive against any of the top-10 offensive lines they've faced this season. And when Suggs, Dumervil and McPhee aren't hitting the quarterback, the pressure shifts onto a vulnerable Ravens secondary that's even more vulnerable with Jimmy Smith out, as he was for most of the Cincinnati game.
Offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak was asked during the week why the Ravens are so stingy near the goal line. He quickly cited the defense's ability to get after quarterbacks. But with the Bengals facing third and long after reaching the red zone on their first possession, the Ravens could not muster any pressure on Dalton. He made them pay, finding Greg Little, who'd beaten Dominique Franks one on one.
Again, on Cincinnati's go-ahead drive late in the fourth quarter, Dalton had all the time he needed to hook up with Mohamed Sanu for a back-breaking 53-yard completion.
The Ravens hit Dalton just three times overall. That's not enough.
5. The way pass coverage is called is the least fun aspect of pro football.
I'm not going to argue the officials made a bad call in flagging Steve Smith for offensive pass interference against Cincinnati safety George Iloka. Smith put his hand on Iloka's chest, and Iloka fell down. By the letter of the law, the Ravens probably deserved to have their game-winning touchdown taken away.
But boy was that result antithetical to the spirit of sports. At the most crucial moment of the game, Smith stood next to Iloka with an equal shot at catching the ball. Without doing anything dirty or injurious, he outfought his opponent and made a wonderful play. The officials wiped that play out and thus closed the book on a vital divisional game.
If that's the conclusion your rules produce, there's something not so great about the rules.
Usually, receivers benefit from this persnickety governance of pass coverage. And that's equally irritating because of the huge chunks of yardage awarded. Such gains should come from skilled plays, not the iffy judgments of non-participants.
This all made me think of the decisive play in Super Bowl XLVII, when two super-talented athletes, Jimmy Smith and Michael Crabtree, jockeyed for a fateful pass with no whistle to stop them. Smith won that battle and well, he actually won. Isn't that what we want?