Of course the Ravens’ hopes died on a mishandled pass in the end zone and a missed tackle in overtime.
Their 12-9 overtime loss to the Cleveland Browns on Sunday was that kind of game, defined by mistakes more than brilliant play on either side. After two straight victories fueled by creative offense and adaptable defense, the Ravens crashed back to the grimy reality of AFC North football.
Michael Crabtree could have ended it in regulation when he lunged for a pass from Joe Flacco in the back of the end zone, the part of the field where the veteran wide receiver has built his reputation. Instead, the ball bounced off Crabtree’s suddenly unreliable hands.
He blamed himself, saying, “I’ve got to get back in the lab and work on concentration.”
But there was plenty of responsibility to go around as the Ravens lost to the Browns for just the third time in coach John Harbaugh’s 11 seasons in Baltimore.
In overtime, as the Ravens defense attempted one last stand, Browns wide receiver Derrick Willies slipped out of Brandon Carr’s grasp on third-and-8 and galloped for 39 yards. Four plays later, Greg Joseph put the Ravens away with a 37-yard field goal.
“It just hurts,” Carr said. “It’s tough to win on the road in this league anyway. We had a great opportunity to make our plays and come out with a victory. The ball just didn’t bounce our way. We didn’t capitalize or execute the way we were supposed to execute.”
“These ain’t the same Ravens,” safety Eric Weddle shouted a week earlier after an inspired victory in Pittsburgh.
But on this dreary afternoon, they played like the worst version of themselves from recent seasons, sputtering on offense and unable to survive on the shoulders of a stout defense.
It’s a loss that could haunt the Ravens, as much because of the context as because of the unsightly particulars of their performance. As they stumbled in Cleveland, the AFC North-leading Cincinnati Bengals rallied to victory over the Miami Dolphins and the Pittsburgh Steelers revived their season by blowing out the Atlanta Falcons.
On top of that, the Ravens will face 2017 playoff teams each of the next four weeks, with two of those games coming on the road against the Tennessee Titans and the Carolina Panthers.
Mistakes abounded in this ugly duckling of a game. The Ravens made them. So did the Browns, in the form of 10 penalties and a missed extra point. So did the officials.
Flacco was convinced his team would have won the game if not for a block-in-the-back call against receiver Chris Moore on the penultimate drive of overtime.
That penalty, on which Moore appeared to brush incidentally against a Browns defender, wiped out a 17-yard gain by Alex Collins to the Cleveland 36-yard line. Justin Tucker could have kicked a game-winning field goal from there.
“We won the game there — as far as I’m concerned — at the end of the game and they called a block in the back on Chris, when the guy is out of position and gets cut back on,” Flacco said during a terse postgame news conference. “It was kind of bogus I thought, but what are you going to do?”
The Browns were equally upset about a noncall in overtime on which Ravens cornerback Carr wiped out Cleveland receiver Jarvis Landry.
After they moved the ball so well through the first four games of the season, the Ravens never found a steady rhythm against a talented Cleveland defense led by end Myles Garrett and cornerback Denzel Ward.
“We just weren’t able to keep and sustain it for anything significant,” Flacco said. “We had our chances. In these kind of games when you have little chances, you have to be able to take advantage of them. The couple we had, we probably just didn’t execute well.”
One of those came in the second quarter, when the Ravens moved the ball to the Cleveland 2-yard-line, only for Flacco to force a pass to heavily covered tight end Nick Boyle. The ball was tipped and Ward — Cleveland’s sensational rookie — intercepted it.
The Ravens blew a similar chance when Alex Collins fumbled near the Steelers’ goal line against Pittsburgh, and that’s part of the reason they haven’t scored a touchdown since the first quarter of the Steelers game.
They squandered another chance at points when Ward streaked in from the right side to block a field-goal attempt by Justin Tucker just before halftime. Their normally top-notch special-teams unit has allowed two blocked field goals and one blocked punt this season.
Flacco finished 29-for-56 for 298 yards, and his 60.0 passer rating was a season low.
The defense did its best to keep the Ravens in the game, sacking Cleveland quarterback Baker Mayfield five times and holding the Browns to three points in the second half. Mayfield, the No. 1 overall pick in this year’s NFL draft, danced away from defenders and threw boldly in the face of pressure. But he led just two drives of 50 yards or more.
“I don’t think every game is going to be perfect, and I don’t think we expect every game to be perfect,” said safety Tony Jefferson, who led the Ravens with nine tackles. “It’s all about finishing and making those plays when they matter. I don’t think it’s going to mess with our confidence at all or mess with our mojo. I still think we did a lot of good stuff out there as a defense.”
Weddle refused to dwell on Willies’ overtime catch-and-run, which finally seemed to break the Ravens’ backs.
“We had a pressure on. We had good coverage, and he got through the tackle and runs for another 20 yards,” he said. “We stopped their offense the entire game. They just made one more play than us. … I don’t think calls were the problem. I don’t think execution was. I thought we fought our tails off.”
All season, outside linebacker Terrell Suggs has urged his team not to overrate the importance of resounding victories. He was equally philosophical after the collective misfire in Cleveland.
“I don’t think it’s anything to hit the panic button on. It’s more fun for you guys when we lose,” he said, grinning at the reporters surrounding him. “You guys get to talk about how we stink, but it’s cool. The path that we’re on is a forest. It’s not a straight line.”