The Ravens trailed the Carolina Panthers by 17 points at halftime Sunday and by as many as 22 afterward. They gave up 24 straight points and 36 points total, both season worsts. They finished the game with starting quarterback Joe Flacco on the sideline for the offense’s final drive, a white flag in a 36-21 loss, their worst defeat of a vexing, up-and-down season.
There was, to their surprise, a lot of time to consider where they stood after three humiliating hours at Bank of America Stadium, or how a top-ranked defense had been deep-fried by Carolina’s multipronged attack, or where the offense could go next with a jury-rigged line.
After a game of discordant defense and unorganized offense, only the most objective of truths elicited unanimity.
Said coach John Harbaugh: “We’re a 4-4 team in a .500 league. We need to get rolling.”
And safety Eric Weddle: “We're 4-4. We're an average team. We just lost, got blown out, so we're — I wouldn't say [at] rock bottom, but we've got to look at ourselves and get back to work.”
And safety Tony Jefferson: “We’re at .500. This is a .500 league. We’re still in the thick of things. We have to come back and get the wins.”
And outside linebacker Terrell Suggs: “Eight games in, .500, it’s not where you want to be, but it’s not terrible.”
It’s not terrible, but it is not where the Ravens thought they would be at the season’s midpoint, not with their top-ranked defense, not with a partly revitalized Flacco, not after three seasons that ended outside the playoffs. But here they are nonetheless, four wins and four losses in eight games, a Week 9 home game against the AFC North-leading Pittsburgh Steelers calling out in the distance.
And so, minutes after Sunday’s shellacking, the Ravens were already doing the playoff math in their heads. Cornerback Jimmy Smith said he’d told players in the shower that they needed at least six wins to qualify. Suggs said they’re “probably going to need seven of them to get in for sure.” Jefferson said winning at home was essential; their next three games are back in M&T Bank Stadium’s friendly confines.
Perhaps it was more comforting to talk about an uncertain postseason picture than the mosaic of ineptitude they’d just produced. Flacco was 22-for-39 for 192 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions, both of which were avoidable. After going pass-for-pass with New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees in their heartbreaking Week 7 loss, he could not measure up to the Panthers’ Superman after a game-opening touchdown drive.
Carolina quarterback Cam Newton finished with 52 rushing yards — 3 more than Alex Collins, the Ravens' leading rusher — and 219 passing yards for three touchdowns total. When he was not buying time against the Ravens’ late-to-the-party pass rush, he was threading balls up the middle to former Maryland star DJ Moore (five catches for a game-high 90 yards) and veteran tight end Greg Olsen (four catches for 56 yards and a touchdown).
“We just didn’t click in anything,” said Harbaugh, who opened his postgame news conference by saying he took responsibility for the team’s play. “We weren’t good in any area. There was nothing we did well, and that starts with me, the coach. I mean, that’s where it belongs, so put it on me and then move forward and get ready for Pittsburgh.”
Though the Ravens wore their record afterward like a scarlet letter, there was disagreement over what their past two Sundays meant.
Defensive tackle Michael Pierce, part of a Ravens front that gave up 154 rushing yards and didn't sack Newton once, said he was "very concerned" about the team's play. The Ravens, he said, needed to "go back and evaluate everything.” Weddle said: “We’re not all right. We just got blasted.”
But Jefferson, Weddle’s close friend, said one game, even one like Sunday’s, didn’t change his belief in the Ravens’ defensive potential. Smith said he wasn’t concerned because the defense, in its mission and process, wasn’t any different from last week’s, his conviction outweighing all evidence to the contrary.
“We’re the same team we were two weeks before that in the sense that we’re going to keep building, keep grinding,” Smith said. “This loss doesn’t mean we’re the worst defense now. It doesn’t mean we’re the best, obviously. But we have to go back to work and get back on our grind. We’re still the same team. This loss doesn’t change anything.”
In the standings, it does. There is less margin for error now, just as there was after the ugly road loss to the Cleveland Browns, just as there was after kicker Justin Tucker’s missed extra-point attempt in Baltimore a week ago. The Ravens' first seven opponents entered Week 9 a combined 22-23-2; their final nine opponents, Carolina (5-2) included, posed perhaps a stiffer test: 31-26-2 overall.
There are still home games against the Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals. There are road tests to come versus the Kansas City Chiefs and Los Angeles Chargers. The Ravens will have to win five, six, maybe seven more games to extend their season, to avoid questions about the direction of their franchise and the well-paid figures running it.
For now, the Ravens’ record is among their few absolutes. They are a .500 team through eight games. On that, they can all agree. To some, it is still a shock to behold.
“Knowing the talent that we have in there, really, the way that we have been playing overall, I am a little bit,” Flacco said. “I think just situationally, game by game, I think, overall, when you look at us, you would think that we are pretty good. But when you look at each individual game for what it is and each individual situation and the reasons why we lost some of those games, then it is what it is. There is no lying in this league. You are what your record says you are, and that’s the bottom line.”