Baltimore Sun columnist Mike Preston talks about the Ravens 31-27 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers. (Kevin Richardson/Baltimore Sun video)
The Ravens' 2016 season ended for all intents and purposes Sunday with a 31-27 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers, but the year has gone as expected.
After finishing 5-11 last season and missing the playoffs for the second time in three years, the Ravens improved enough to challenge for a playoff position this season, but not enough to be serious contenders.
They just don't have enough playmakers at the skill positions or in the defensive secondary to challenge for a Super Bowl title.
It showed against Oakland, Dallas and New England, and it was never more glaring than Sunday against Pittsburgh. Throughout the game, and especially in crunch time, the Steelers relied on quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, running back Le'Veon Bell and receiver Antonio Brown.
The Ravens can hang with a lot of NFL teams sheer hustle and heart, but those will only take a team so far. In the final four minutes of games, superstars have to make plays, and the Ravens are lacking.
The Ravens had a 20-10 lead after a field goal with 14:18 left, but then Pittsburgh went to a no-huddle offense, Roethlisberger, Bell and Brown took over the game.
The Steelers had three drives in the fourth quarter, all resulting in touchdowns. The drives went 75, 90 and 75 yards, and combined they lasted less than seven minutes. Bell had a 7-yard catch to finish one drive and a 7-yard run to finish another. Brown made a great catch for the winning touchdown with nine seconds left.
"They made big plays and got the ball in the end zone," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "Obviously that was the difference in the game. We are very close to being a very good football team. We can be a great football team, but we're not there yet."
The Ravens' need for playmakers has to be the focus during the offseason. Quarterback Joe Flacco is a notch below Roethlisberger, and he doesn't have a Bell or a Brown.
He has receiver Steve Smith Sr., who is 37 and might retire after one more game. He has receivers Breshad Perriman and Darren Waller, both of whom dropped passes in the fourth quarter. Perriman appears to be afraid of getting hit and Waller just lacks focus.
The Ravens have two tough running backs in Kenneth Dixon and Terrance West, but they aren't in close to the same class as Bell, who had 122 yards on 20 carries.
Dixon and West combined for 84 yards on 22 carries. They run hard, but they don't have breakaway ability. All good teams have great players. Dallas has running back Ezekiel Elliott and receiver Dez Bryant. Oakland had quarterback Derek Carr and receivers Michael Crabtree and Amari Cooper.
The only team in a similar situation as the Ravens is the Patriots, and they have quarterback Tom Brady, who turns no-name targets into productive players. Flacco is no Brady.
"They are great players in the NFL," Ravens inside linebacker C. J. Mosley said of the Steelers. "It is what it is."
The age of some of the Ravens veterans started to show in this game. The Ravens entered the game with the No. 2-ranked defense, but that was misleading because they have played one of the weakest schedules in the league.
They haven't played good run defense in the past three weeks against New England, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. Their two top pass rushers, Terrell Suggs, 34, and Elvis Dumervil, 32, have disappeared in big games the past two seasons while battling injuries.
The Ravens don't have a cornerback who can match up with Brown. With or without the often-injured Jimmy Smith, there isn't a shutdown cornerback on the roster.
Over the next few days we'll see or hear the complaints about the Ravens, and there will be demands to fire Harbaugh and general manager Ozzie Newsome. That's just silly. In the league's current state, the Ravens aren't that far away from being serious contenders.
Their effort Sunday was outstanding. They played hard in a great football game. If they had won, it would have breathed some life into a team that was on the verge of falling apart last week. But this team has now been out of the playoffs three of the past four years. They can't keep making the same mistakes and now they know they need to get younger and faster.
Even more importantly, they need playmakers at the skill positions, not experiments like Perriman and Waller. Those guys can't deliver in crunch time.
"We just went into attack mode," Roethlisberger said about the no-huddle offense in the fourth quarter. "We were throwing it up and just making things happen. You know, guys made plays and I just threw it to the right guys."
The Ravens don't have a lot of those types of guys on either side of the ball.