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Ravens' win probabilities done in by costly turnovers, big passing plays allowed, crushing penalties

Baltimore Ravens outside linebacker Elvis Dumervil (58) grabs the face mask of Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles (5) after time expired, drawing a flag to keep the drive alive during the fourth quarter in Baltimore.
Baltimore Ravens outside linebacker Elvis Dumervil (58) grabs the face mask of Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles (5) after time expired, drawing a flag to keep the drive alive during the fourth quarter in Baltimore. (Karl Merton Ferron)

It's an inglorious streak, considering their 4-8 record, but on Sunday against the Seattle Seahawks the Ravens will be in the running for an NFL-record 13th consecutive game decided by one score or less.

No team has begun a season with 12 straight games decided by eight points or less, as the Ravens have. It's been a lesson in the importance of not letting up for a single play on defense, a lesson on the major consequences of turnovers for the offense, and a lesson in late-game heartbreak for fans.

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Each game comes down to the end, but more often than not it's decided long before that. An examination of the in-game win probabilities and expected point values of every play this season reveals costly turnovers, big opposing passing plays, and crushing penalties to be the biggest swings in these dozen close games.

Players and coaches know it's their job to either prevent such swings from happening or overcome them.

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"A loss is a loss is a loss," defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan said. "We're definitely not going to walk around like it's OK to lose. We're not fine with it by any means. But that just goes to show, it's a game of inches and you never know which play is going to be the play that can turn the game around."

ProFootballReference.com lists, for each play in every NFL game, the amount of points that can be expected from the given down, distance, field position, and game situation, known as expected points added. It also charts win probability throughout the game.

This week, outside linebacker Elvis Dumervil and defensive coordinator Dean Pees took shots at the NFL's referees. Dumervil said the Ravens have been "taken advantage of" by officials. Pees said the officiating has been "lousy." The biggest swings in two of the Ravens' losses came because of penalties.

In Week 2, with 41 seconds remaining and the Raiders driving for the game-winning touchdown, a soft defensive holding call on safety Will Hill negated his interception. The difference between the interception standing and the result of the penalty caused the Raiders' win probability to swing 41 percentage points, the biggest swing in that game.

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Likewise, the officiating error the NFL admitted to at the end of the Week 10 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars represented a massive swing. Had the Jaguars been penalized for not being set in their formation before the snap at the end of the quarter, the Ravens would have won. Instead, the play went off, Dumervil took a 15-yard facemask penalty, and the Jaguars had a 46 percent chance of winning on kicker Jason Myers' 53-yard field goal.

Offensively, interceptions by quarterbacks Joe Flacco and Matt Schaub have swung the Ravens' chances more than anything else. Flacco's third-quarter interception returned for a touchdown against the Denver Broncos in Week 1 swung the win probability 43.4 percentage points in the Broncos' favor.

The biggest swings in expected points added in five games came through turnovers committed by the quarterbacks: Flacco's interception in the Denver game (a 7.96-point swing), Flacco's second-quarter interception against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 4 (5.85-point swing), Flacco's second-half fumble against the Jaguars (5.04-point swing), Flacco's second interception in Week 11 against the St. Louis Rams (5.49-point swing), and Schaub's interception returned for a touchdown late in the first half Sunday against the Miami Dolphins (8.27-point swing).

A sixth turnover, the fumble on a punt return by wide receiver Jeremy Ross against the Arizona Cardinals in Week 7, was the pivotal point in that game as well, causing a 6.22-point swing in expected points and a 23.4 percentage point increase in the Cardinals chances of winning.

"Turnovers are, obviously, explosive plays, and turnovers are going to really set the tone for whether you win or lose games in most cases," offensive coordinator Marc Trestman said. "We try to make the right decisions, get the ball to the right guy. Sometimes, it doesn't work out. Certainly, when you're turning the ball over, it makes it very, very hard on your football team."

Said Harbaugh: "You can't throw picks, and you can't throw picks that go all the way back to the house."

The defense holds some blame, too, for the big plays that plagued the unit through the first half of the season. Raiders wide receiver Amari Cooper's 68-yard touchdown came from a position on the field where no points were expected, making that the most valuable play in terms of EPA in that game.

That honor also goes to San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Torrey Smith's 76-yard touchdown catch in Week 6 (7.27-point swing, and a 21.4 percentage point increase in San Francisco's win probability) and San Diego Chargers' wide receiver Malcolm Floyd's 70-yard touchdown in the Ravens' Week 8 win (7.03-point swing, 36.2 percentage point win probability increase).

There have been a few game-swinging moments in the Ravens favor, even if not all resulted in victories. Inside linebacker C.J. Mosley's fourth-quarter fumble return for a touchdown in Week 3 against the Cincinnati Bengals raised the Ravens' win-probability by 60 percentage points, and the field goal block-turned-touchdown by Hill in Week 13 against the Cleveland Browns came at a time when the Ravens had a 22.1-percent chance of winning, swinging it nearly 78 points.

But those plays have been too far between. When the story of the Ravens' series of almost-victories and close defeats is written, it will be the turnovers, big plays, and officials' calls they'll be left lamenting.

"It just hasn't been our lot this year that way," Harbaugh said. "That's the way it goes, and you have to find a way to overcome it."

Twitter.com/JonMeoli

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