It used to be a scenario that the Ravens' defense would relish — a three-point lead to protect, just over two minutes to play and a young quarterback tasked with putting together a lengthy game-saving drive against them.
The question was never whether the Ravens would get a stop. It was what defensive player would be primarily responsible for it.
Those days are no longer. When Oakland Raiders quarterback Derek Carr took his offense 80 yards in less than two minutes last Sunday and threw the game-winning touchdown pass to Seth Roberts with 26 seconds to play, the Ravens were stung again by a failure to finish, an all-too-familiar feeling since they capped the 2012 season with a pulsating victory in Super Bowl XLVII.
With a composed and playoff-tested quarterback, a strong running game and an aggressive and experienced defense, the Ravens feel like they have the right ingredients to close out games. Yet, as they welcome the Cincinnati Bengals to M&T Bank Stadium on Sunday in one of their most important early-season games in the John Harbaugh era, the Ravens are 0-2 and lamenting missed opportunities and poor execution late in games.
"We could be sitting 2-0 if we had finished the games, but we can't take it back," said Ravens outside linebacker Elvis Dumervil. "The only thing you can do is learn from it and go out and practice, prepare and really put yourself in those situations mentally again, so next time it comes around, [we] make sure we're better prepared."
That "next time" could very well be Sunday given the recent history between the Ravens and Bengals — four of their last five meetings were in doubt entering the fourth quarter — and a league-wide trend that accentuates how little margin of error there is these days in winning football games.
Through the first two-plus weeks of the NFL season, 24 of the 33 games played have been within one score at some point in the fourth quarter. In six of those games, the decisive points were scored in the final 75 seconds of the fourth quarter or overtime.
Both of the Ravens' losses came down to the final seconds. Eyeing the go-ahead score, the Ravens had the ball on the Denver Broncos' 16-yard line with 42 seconds to play. Steve Smith Sr. dropped a potential touchdown pass and then quarterback Joe Flacco was intercepted in the end zone on the very next play, cementing a 19-13 loss.
Against the Raiders, the Ravens settled for a Justin Tucker field goal and a three-point lead with just over two minutes to play after Flacco and Smith again couldn't connect for the go-ahead score. But they couldn't stop Carr, who needed just nine plays to get the Raiders in the end zone and was aided by a foolish roughing the passer penalty on Timmy Jernigan.
"That's the story of every 0-2 team in the National Football League," said Ravens veteran defensive end Chris Canty. "The games come down to one or two plays here or there; we understand that. It's about executing in those keys moments that's going to allow you to be successful, and unfortunately in the first couple weeks, we didn't do that."
Particularly disappointing for Harbaugh and his staff is that they emphasized late-game situations during training camp. Harbaugh constantly pitted his offense and defense against each other in two-minute situations, late in the first half or in the game.
"The ability to finish is something that we talk about all the time," Harbaugh said. "It's not something we just talk about it, it's something we drill. We try to create as many game-like situations as we can and game-ending situations, game-winning situations are a regular part of what we practice. In this league, because everybody is about the same, everybody is good, you have to find a way to win a game. Sometimes, it's one play. It's not always the last play. Sometimes, it's a play in the middle of the third quarter that you don't expect to be the play, but that's the play that makes the difference. You've got to play every play like that play is the game-determining play."
In his eight-season tenure with the Ravens, Harbaugh's team is 39-37 in games decided by one score or less. The 34-31 victory over the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XLVII, which was highlighted by a late Ravens' goal-line stand, was Harbaugh's crowning achievement.
But recent seasons have been marred by a handful of late letdowns. In 2013, the Ravens missed the playoffs for the only time under Harbaugh, partly because they allowed the third most fourth-quarter points in the NFL.
Last year, they lost five games decided by one possession, including two against the Bengals. Quarterback Andy Dalton hit star wide receiver A.J. Green for the game-winning, 77-yard touchdown with just under five minutes to play in the Ravens' regular-season opener. Dalton then scored the go-ahead touchdown on a 1-yard quarterback sneak with under a minute to go in the second meeting.
Before the 2014 season was over, the Ravens would also be victimized by comebacks from the San Diego Chargers' Philip Rivers and the New England Patriots' Tom Brady. With their two losses early this year, the Ravens have now dropped seven of their past nine games decided by seven points or less.
"Sometimes, it seems like the defense has got to make a play to win the game, and sometimes we haven't," said cornerback Jimmy Smith. "That's something that we've just got to keep working on, but that's just all effort and will right there when you're on the last final drive. You want every player out there to know they've got to make that play or stop to win the game, and that's how you've got to feel."
It would be unfair to put all the blame on the defense. After all, the Ravens' offense had chances to score late touchdowns against both the Broncos and Raiders and they couldn't finish drives. In three consecutive losses dating to last year, Flacco has thrown late-game interceptions to seal the Ravens' fate.
"Just keep going out there and practicing like it is those types of situations and continue to put ourselves in those situations, at the least, and if we get enough of them, we're going to make them," Flacco said. "As far as the ones that we've had, it is just kind of simple execution. It is nothing complicated. It is just simple stuff and making the most of that play."
Flacco said the close losses don't hurt any more than the ones where the Ravens are beaten decisively. His teammates on defense, however, may not agree.
For years, the Ravens' defense coveted the opportunity to close out games with a key stop or a turnover. Late-game stands became one of the trademarks of the Ray Lewis-led Ravens' defenses of the past. Lewis would challenge his teammates in the huddle to make the game-saving play.
The current Ravens badly need somebody to step up and answer that call.
"You want to be the guy to make the play," said nose tackle Brandon Williams. "You get chances, and we had a bunch of chances [last] Sunday, and they just didn't get tipped our way. We just feel like we need to come back to the drawing board … and just get after it this Sunday."
Baltimore Sun staff writer Jon Meoli contributed to this article.
Since a goal-line stand helped secure a victory in Super Bowl XLVII, the Ravens have had issues finishing games. In both losses this season, they had chances in the end but came up short.
Date; Opponent; Final; Skinny;
9-20-15; Raiders; 37-33; Derek Carr throws TD pass with 26 seconds to play, capping 80-yard drive;
9-13-15; Broncos; 19-13; Joe Flacco is intercepted in end zone with 36 seconds left, sealing the loss;
1-10-15; Patriots; 35-31; Patriots get go-ahead score with 5:21 left; Flacco throws late INT in playoffs;
11-30-14; Chargers; 34-33; Ravens blow late 10-point lead; Chargers score TD with 38 seconds left;
10-26-14; Bengals; 27-24; Andy Dalton scores on QB sneak with 57 seconds left to end 10-play drive;
9-07-14; Bengals; 23-16; A.J. Green answers TD by Steve Smith Sr. with 77-yard score with 4:58 remaining;
11-17-13; Bears; 23-20, OT; After settling for game-tying FG despite first-and-goal, Ravens lose in OT;
11-03-13; Browns; 24-18; Browns run off all but 14 seconds with late 15-play scoring drive;
10-20-13; Steelers; 19-16; After tying game with 1:58 left, Ravens lose on FG by Shaun Suisham at the gun;