As Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco took the field early in the second quarter Thursday night, it was hard to say which was more daunting: the past, the present or the possibility of a bright near future.
For as long as he has led the franchise in Baltimore, Flacco has struggled against the Cincinnati Bengals. Now linebacker C.J. Mosley, the quarterback of the Ravens defense, had left the game with a bone bruise. What hope was there for a happy ending with Flacco’s history of inefficiency, Mosley’s absence and, maybe worst of all, the team’s 21-0 deficit in hostile AFC North territory?
Hope did arrive, on the backs of an improved Flacco and a resilient but depleted defense, both sparking a Ravens rally. But in the team’s last gasp, Flacco could not deliver the excellence he had supplied in abundance just days earlier.
His fumble on a third-down sack with 2:52 remaining and the Ravens needing a score was one mistake too many in a 34-23 loss, the team’s 11th defeat in 14 games in Cincinnati (2-0) under coach John Harbaugh. Flacco finished 32-for-55 for 376 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions in a performance that offered no measure of redemption for Tyler Boyd’s dagger-in-the-heart, last-minute catch in last season’s Week 17 loss to the Bengals, which extended the team’s playoff absence to three years.
Four days earlier, Flacco was happy to idle on the sideline in the fourth quarter, watching the backups play the Buffalo Bills as they coasted toward the franchise’s third-highest margin of victory. When it mattered late Thursday, he ran the offense the way he likes — fast — and often found his receiver who fits that description: John Brown.
His first completion in a drive that got the Ravens within a score was to the free-agent signing. His last was a pinpoint 21-yard throw to Brown (four catches for 92 yards), who climbed over cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick in the near corner of the end zone for a touchdown that seemed to deaden the announced 50,018 at Paul Brown Stadium. A failed 2-point conversion kept the Ravens at arm’s length, down 28-23.
But they could not hold off the Bengals’ stalled offense for long. A crucial third-down penalty on Ravens cornerback Tavon Young averted a three-and-out for Cincinnati, and the offense marched downfield with much of the precision it had earlier. A 28-yard field goal by Randy Bullock extended the Bengals’ lead to eight with just under three minutes remaining.
Almost as soon as the Ravens got the ball, Flacco gave it back. The offense's three-play drive was a case study in how not to finish a 21-point comeback: incomplete pass, incomplete pass, fumble on a rollout Flacco hoped would last longer than it did.
“We had a chance there to make a play,” Harbaugh said. “We get one more second, it could be a touchdown. We got to execute. It’s one of those designed plays to take a shot. It’s a tough play to get off. I thought we did a good job when we didn't make mistakes.”
The Ravens had gotten to within 11 points in the third quarter on kicker Justin Tucker’s 55-yard field goal, his 22nd consecutive make dating to last season. But they squandered chance after chance to make the fourth quarter more manageable.
On consecutive drives, the offense gave the ball away, first on a failed fourth-down attempt that running back Buck Allen probably should’ve converted and then on a pop-fly interception by Flacco. The long ball fell easily to safety Shawn Williams, who had defensive end Carlos Dunlap’s pressure off the edge to thank.
In a rivalry in which, historically, both starting quarterbacks have been their worst selves more often than not, it was Andy Dalton (24-for-42 for 265 yards and four touchdowns) who shined brightest under the “Thursday Night Football” lights. After a three-and-out against the Mosley-led defense, he found the Mosley-less defense to be as different as night and day.
An interception by Flacco on the offense’s second drive gave the Bengals a head start at the Ravens’ 16-yard line. A third-down penalty for pass interference on safety Tony Jefferson gave Cincinnati new life in the red zone, and Dalton found star wide receiver A.J. Green (five catches for 69 yards) streaking across the end zone on the next play for a 4-yard score.
The Ravens’ Young, working against the seven-time Pro Bowl selection in the slot, could not keep up, too far behind to lay even a finger. The next time they tangled on a big play, Young got two hands on Green, but even that was not enough. Green shook off a tackle before outracing safety Eric Weddle to the corner of the end zone with the seeming ease of a light jog for a 32-yard score.
Less than 17 minutes into the game, Green had his third touchdown in three possessions against the Ravens’ undermanned defense, this time besting cornerback Marlon Humphrey. At that point, no one would’ve blamed the Ravens for wanting a second game against the Bills this season, not the Bengals. Up 21-0, Cincinnati already had nearly as many yards of total offense (151) as the Bills finished with Sunday (153).
“I'm not sure how many yards [Green] had, but it seemed like when they got in the red zone, it was just touchdown, touchdown, touchdown,” said Humphrey, who acknowledged that some Ravens didn’t even know Mosley had left the game after he did. “We've just got to be more aware of wherever he is and try to eliminate it.”
Flacco had posted his best passer rating in four years with a measured approach against Buffalo. On Thursday, maybe his most audacious throw, if not his most foolhardy, got the offense going. The 45-yard pass to Brown, a triple-coverage bomb that fell through the hands of onrushing safety Jessie Bates, marked the Ravens’ first incursion into Bengals territory.
The drive ended with a 1-yard rushing score by Ravens running back Buck Allen, and after a turnover on downs on their next possession, they found the end zone again. They needed it, too, Cincinnati having scored on its fourth straight drive just minutes earlier. Rookie tight end Mark Andrews’ 1-yard grab on third down with eight seconds left cut the lead to 28-14, and for a moment the sky no longer seemed to be falling.
Afterward, outside linebacker Terrell Suggs confirmed that it was not. “Like I told you all on Sunday, your luck can change this fast in this league,” he said, and there was plenty of evidence to support him. They’d gone from a plus-two turnover margin to a minus-three deficit, from six sacks by the defense to none, from a manageable injury list to one featuring perhaps the defense’s most indispensable cornerstone.
And yet for as dire a start that the Ravens had had, at game’s end, they were close. If only their hole hadn’t been so big, players lamented.
“The journey that we’re on, it’s not a straight path,” Suggs said. “It’s a forest. We’re not worried about it.”