As he does each week, Childs Walker shares his five biggest takeaways from the Ravens' 34-33 loss to the San Diego Chargers on Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium.
1. This could be the loss the Ravens regret most in four weeks.
The players' mournful expressions in the post-game locker room packed more meaning than their words of regret.
The Ravens could hardly have faced a better scenario, and they knew it. Two AFC North rivals, the Cleveland Browns and Pittsburgh Steelers, had already lost. The Ravens held a six-point lead at home against another contender from the West Coast. If they could cling to it for a bit more than two minutes, they'd be sitting pretty.
Instead, they watched Phillip Rivers prove quickly and decisively that a great quarterback can check all other advantages in the NFL. Rivers pitilessly vivisected an overmatched defense and put the Ravens in danger of falling from contention if they can't win on the road next week against the underrated Miami Dolphins.
"It really sucks," linebacker Terrell Suggs said. "You have to win all of your home games. Especially as tough as our division is and as tough as our conference is, you can't afford to lose games down the stretch."
The Ravens' 33 points should have been enough, Suggs added.
He's right. The Ravens are a playoff-quality team in virtually every aspect of the game, but they've struggled to put away good teams because their defense falters against the best quarterbacks.
They also left the door open for Rivers by ending too many drives with field goals rather than touchdowns and by racking up 14 penalties for 98 yards. If they had done just a few more things right, they likely would have won. Instead, they might look back on this as the week when their season fell into the precipice.
2. The Ravens' secondary facing any top quarterback is a terrifying prospect.
You might have instinctively felt comfortable when Justin Tucker kicked a field goal to put the Ravens up 33-27 with 2:22 left. But the feeling evaporated with the realization Rivers had that much time to move the ball against an overmatched secondary.
Hello, butter. Meet hot knife.
I'm not sure I can remember a good all-around Ravens team with such a clear Achilles heel. This secondary, handicapped by the loss of its best player, Jimmy Smith, the injury struggles of Lardarius Webb and the disappointing development of first-round pick Matt Elam, simply cannot handle a star NFL quarterback.
With 383 yards on 34-for-45 passing, Rivers joined Drew Brees and Ben Roethlisberger on the list of quarterbacks who've posted Nintendo numbers against Baltimore in recent weeks.
The Ravens staked everything on their ability to hit Rivers before he could hit one of his receivers. That worked on the Chargers' first drive, when a blitzing Elvis Dumervil hooked Rivers' arm and forced an interception.
But Rivers stared down the Ravens' blitz on his next drive, and sure enough, the Baltimore secondary couldn't hold. Chargers tight end Antonio Gates manhandled Will Hill like the Ravens safety was a grade schooler. And San Diego receiver Keenan Allen was open by five yards when he caught Rivers' touchdown pass, with Lardarius Webb staring on helplessly.
Gates tortured the Ravens all day, with linebacker C.J. Mosley unable to check him any better than Hill.
On the Chargers' first drive of the second half, Malcom Floyd zipped past Danny Gorrer with ease for a 59-yard gain to set up a field goal.
As the half wore on and the Ravens' rushers failed to bother Rivers, he seemed able to find whichever receiver he wanted for a 12- or 15-yard gain. Allen caught 11 passes on 15 targets. Gates caught seven on eight targets. Eddie Royals caught nine on 10 targets.
Ravens coach John Harbaugh tried to put the best face he could on the situation, saying, "Those quarterbacks in this league are going to be tough to defend. We have the players to win."
But what else is he going to say? He can't snap his fingers and genie up a new secondary with four weeks to go.
The path won't get much easier next weekend, when the Ravens travel to Miami to face the Dolphins' Ryan Tannehill, who has quietly become a very good quarterback.
3. The narrative of Torrey Smith having a disappointing season has flipped.
Smith did little to hide his frustration in the season's early weeks, as Joe Flacco targeted him infrequently and he struggled to handle passes he'd turned into big plays in previous seasons
He suddenly seemed the team's clear No. 2 receiver behind the Ravens' newest big-play threat, Steve Smith.
Against the Chargers, however, Torrey was clearly the team's No. 1 Smith, with Steve struggling to get anything going against top cover corner Brandon Flowers. Aside from a late injury that kept him out of the Ravens' final series, Torrey Smith was one of the best players on the field.
Smith had played an exceptional second half six days earlier in New Orleans. And he rapidly followed it with a sensational touchdown catch on the Ravens' first drive against San Diego, getting one hand on an errant Flacco pass and volleying it until he could pull it in.
Smith scored another touchdown when he slipped in front of his man and handled a Flacco bullet on the Ravens' first drive of the second half. That gave him seven touchdowns in seven games.
Smith also did what he does better than any receiver in football, drawing 38 yards on two passs interference penalties to move his league-leading total to 199 penalty yards drawn. The only receiver in the same universe is Green Bay's deep threat, Jordy Nelson, who entered Sunday with 128 penalty yards.
Far from luck, this is a repeatable skill Smith has demonstrated season after season. It's a big reason he entered the weekend as a more productive receiver than Steve Smith, according to the advanced metrics favored by the website Football Outsiders.
As Smith approaches free agency, he's looking like a top receiver again, by measures obvious and not.
4. The most impressive thing about Justin Forsett's style is his patience.
We're running out of ways to talk about what a cool season Forsett is having. He crossed the 1,000-yard mark against the Chargers, an achievement obscured by bitter defeat.
At this point, I watch the guy week after week and try to discern why he was passed over for so many years. His slight stature and lack of breakaway speed are the obvious reasons.
But Forsett is such a clever runner. If the offensive line gives him room, he rarely squanders it by cutting too soon or shooting the wrong gap. He waits until he sees the optimal crack in the line, then exploits it with his impressive quickness. That's why he leads the league in gains of 20 or more yards.
Forsett is never going to awe you. He's simply going to make the best of what's in front of him. It seems an appropriate style for a guy who waited so long for his NFL opportunity.
5. Yet again, the officials took over a game with too many pass-interference calls.
Harbaugh didn't bother hiding his frustration with a pass-interference call on cornerback Anthony Levine that put the Chargers on the 1-yard-line to set up their game-winning touchdown.
"I think a corner should be given the chance to defend, and I know he wasn't given a chance to defend on that play," Harbaugh said. "That's not fair to the player."
The call came a month after the Ravens watched a potential game-winning touchdown wiped out in Cincinnati by an offensive interference call against Steve Smith.
To be fair, Sunday's crew also handed a near-certain touchdown to the Ravens with an interference call on San Diego cornerback Shareece Wright earlier in the fourth quarter.
I've said it multiple times this season, but it's maddening to watch the officials hand out huge chunks of yardage on plays that involve little more than mutual hand sparring between receiver and defender.
It's not that they necessarily called the play against Levine incorrectly. It's that they took the fate of the game away from the players on a close judgment call. And we see this week after week.