1) The Ravens can’t afford another game like this if they hope to fulfill their playoff ambitions.
Yes, the Ravens outlasted an inferior opponent to maintain their leg up in the AFC wild-card race. That has to be the headline.
But this was not an encouraging effort from a team that has generally rounded into form over the past six weeks. The Ravens talk about making a deep run if they get into the postseason, but that won’t happen if they make as many mental and physical mistakes as they did against the Indianapolis Colts.
“Not the best-played game by us,” coach John Harbaugh said.
The Ravens mishandled a succession of key plays that could have made the game easier for them.
On the first drive of the second half, offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg called for a bizarre formation on third-and-1 at the Colts’ 15-yard line, with tackles Ronnie Stanley and Austin Howard lined up way outside to the right. Joe Flacco threw to tight end Nick Boyle on the same side, but Boyle was immediately overwhelmed for a 3-yard loss.
Creativity is great, but the Ravens had been running effectively the whole drive, so why go exotic at that moment? As a result, they had to settle for a 36-yard field goal.
The vaunted special-teams unit committed several lapses, including a muffed return by Michael Campanaro and a blocked punt that forced the defense to make a tense stand late in the fourth quarter.
In the fourth quarter, Harbaugh declined a holding penalty that would have left the Colts at third-and-11 on their own 24-yard line. Instead, Indianapolis easily converted on fourth-and-1 and went on to kick a field goal that cut the Ravens’ lead to one score.
“That was just a bad call by me,” Harbaugh said after the game.
Later on the same drive, safety Eric Weddle dropped an easy interception that could have effectively ended the Colts’ chances.
He joked that he might deny himself his usual post-victory ice cream as penance. But he added that this is no time to dwell on such mistakes.
“It’s whatever it takes at this point in the season,” he said.
That summed up the general spin the Ravens put on their too-close-for-comfort victory. They knew they’d played sloppily, but they were already looking forward to their next must-win on New Year’s Eve against the Cincinnati Bengals.
“We did not play perfect, I will say it again,” linebacker Terrell Suggs said. “But we played good enough to win. Next week is going to take a perfect effort.”
2) Joe Flacco continued his recent rebound by minimizing his mistakes in the rain.
Flacco still hasn’t thrown for 300 yards in a game this season, and he’ll undoubtedly continue to be criticized by national analysts for his modest production.
But he’s played noticeably better over the past six weeks, minimizing the interceptions that undermined him early in the season and making throws on the move that we simply didn’t see when he was recovering from his preseason back injury.
“I just feel that as an offense, we’re starting to hit our stride,” he said.
He was particularly proud of a 14-play, 75-yard touchdown drive in the fourth quarter that gave the Ravens their eventual margin of victory.
Flacco certainly wasn’t perfect.
He floated a pass over a wide-open Nick Boyle to cost the Ravens a possible touchdown in the second quarter. But he made up for it two plays later when he looked off the defense and zipped a scoring pass to Michael Campanaro to put the Ravens up 10-0.
He then made a judgment error in the last minute of the first half when he threw the ball away on third down instead of falling to the ground inbounds. As a result, he gave the Colts enough time to get off a long (unsuccessful) field-goal attempt.
The good clearly outweighed the bad, however, and that’s generally been the case as the Ravens have won five of their past six games.
“He looks good,” Suggs said. “He just has to be Joe next week.”
3) Despite a late-game stand, the Ravens defense played one of its worst games of the season.
With the Colts 10 yards from the end zone and a devastating loss feeling like a real possibility, the Ravens finally got after Indianapolis quarterback Jacoby Brissett on the last two meaningful plays of the game.
But this was not a good game for the Baltimore defensive front, which seemed set up to have a big game against a thrown-together Colts offensive line.
Brissett struggles against pressure, but the Ravens couldn’t get home against him, even though they frequently blitzed on third down.
None of their edge rushers played well, and they were fortunate Brissett wasn’t skilled enough to punish them more frequently.
They also struggled to stop the run in the first half, allowing veteran back Frank Gore to average 5.3 yards on eight carries. Linebacker C.J. Mosley said the Ravens struggled to close off Gore’s options in the Colts’ zone running scheme, though he felt they adjusted well in the second half.
Overall, the game reminded us that when the Ravens don’t force turnovers, their defense becomes ordinary.
4) Left tackle Ronnie Stanley has not been at his best in recent weeks.
It’s hard to know how much Stanley has been affected by the various injuries he’s played through. But the Colts’ best edge rusher, Jabaal Sheard, gave him fits in this game.
Sheard didn’t post any sacks, but he was in Flacco’s face throughout the game and batted down two passes. That wasn’t all on Stanley, who didn’t match up with Sheard on every snap.
But the Ravens left tackle has allowed an unusual number of pressures over the past month.
Stanley has demonstrated his toughness this year, and he’s delivered a solid return on the first-round bet the Ravens made on him last year.
He just hasn’t evolved into the Pro Bowl candidate the team foresaw. Not yet anyway.
5) Tight ends continue to be the low-key Achilles heel for the Ravens defense.
The Ravens should be thankful they won’t have to face Cincinnati’s star tight end, Tyler Eifert, next weekend. Because they’ve struggled to cover many a tight end less talented than he this season.
On Saturday, the Colts’ Jack Doyle caught five of the 10 passes thrown his way, four of them for first downs.
Afterward, Harbaugh said it was a “really good question” why his team hasn’t defended the position better.
According to the advanced stats on FootballOutsiders.com, the Ravens have the second-most efficient pass defense in the league but rank 31st against tight ends.
When you look ahead to the playoffs, the Ravens could face a murderer’s row, from the Kansas City Chiefs’ Travis Kelce to the Pittsburgh Steelers duo that burned them a few weeks ago to the New England Patriots’ Rob Gronkowski. It’s not an enticing prospect.