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Ravens’ fading playoff hopes take another hit with 20-19 loss to Rams

"Tough loss. I thought the guys were physical," said Harbaugh. "I thought they played very hard."

There the Ravens were Sunday, the team without its talismanic quarterback or Pro Bowl cornerbacks or top three running backs, down to two Week 1 starters along its offensive line, missing a first-round draft pick and so much more. There the Ravens were, needing just one stop to reverse their season’s downward slide, to enter Week 18 with a playoff pulse.

If the Ravens had gotten used to anything in this roller-coaster season entering Sunday’s game against the Los Angeles Rams, it was having to play with an incomplete roster. And if there were any lesson hammered home by a crushing 20-19 loss in Baltimore, an all-but-fatal blow to the Ravens’ fading playoff hopes, it was that teams this incomplete tend not to play complete games.

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On a potential put-away drive late in the fourth quarter, the Ravens, leading the NFC West-best Rams 16-14, turned second-and-goal at the Rams’ 2-yard line into a 34-yard field-goal attempt for kicker Justin Tucker. On the Rams’ decisive touchdown drive three minutes later, quarterback Matthew Stafford found wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. draped by cornerback Tavon Young — but open enough for a 5-yard completion on fourth-and-5. One play later, Stafford found Beckham again, more open this time, for a go-ahead, last-minute 7-yard score.

With that, the Rams (12-4) had effectively done what the Ravens (8-8) once could but no longer can: work the margins, close out a game, snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. The Ravens have lost five straight games for the first time under coach John Harbaugh, four of which have been by two points or fewer. If their season ends next Sunday, short of the playoffs for the first time since 2017, Sunday’s loss will stand as a fitting memorial to this season of diminished potential and wasted opportunity.

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“There’s nothing good about losing, especially five times in a row,” outside linebacker Tyus Bowser said. “A lot of these have come down to the last minute, last drive or whatever, and we’re just not finding ways to win and finding ways to finish. That’s what we’ve got to do. We made plays throughout the game, had a couple stand-up, big-play drives, but we’ve just got to find a way to finish in all phases of the ball. Unfortunately, we haven’t done that, and we need to figure it out.”

They are likely out of time. A win Sunday would not have been enough to keep the Ravens’ AFC North title hopes alive — the Bengals’ 34-31 triumph over the Kansas City Chiefs has the championship postmarked for Cincinnati for the first time since 2015 — but it would’ve kept their heads above water. A Week 18 win over the Steelers, in what will likely be Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s final game, might’ve left the playoff odds in the Ravens’ favor.

Now they need something close to a miracle to extend this season. For the Ravens to have even a shot at the playoffs, the 2-14 Jacksonville Jaguars would need to upset the 9-7 Indianapolis Colts next weekend. And that’s just the start of it.

“If the football gods bless us with an opportunity to make the playoffs, I think all of this experience is going to pay off,” defensive lineman Calais Campbell said. “All of these hard-fought battles, close games, that’s going to make a difference if we get a chance to dance. Obviously, we need some help, but we’ve got to do our part. It’s just one day at a time, and we’ll embrace the opportunity, but it would have been nice to win this ball game.”

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How many times have the Ravens said that in the past month? Their slide from the AFC’s No. 1 seed to No. 11 seed started over a month ago with a 20-19 loss to the Steelers, in which a last-minute 2-point-conversion attempt failed just minutes after Marlon Humphrey suffered a season-ending injury. He soon joined fellow star cornerback Marcus Peters, running backs J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards and many others on injured reserve.

Next came a 24-22 loss to the Cleveland Browns, a near-comeback now remembered as the game that knocked out quarterback Lamar Jackson for three weeks (and counting). The week after that, another failed 2-pointer doomed an injury- and coronavirus-ravaged Ravens team late in a 31-30 loss to the NFC-leading Green Bay Packers. In Week 16, the Ravens started journeyman Josh Johnson at quarterback and a motley crew of practice squad call-ups in the secondary in a 41-21 loss to the Bengals.

“Man, I don’t think I’ve been a part of a season with this many close games ever in my life,” Young said. “All those overtime games, the last-drive games — it’s been crazy.”

More help materialized before Sunday, but not enough. Jackson’s ankle injury kept him from practicing Thursday and Friday and sidelined him for a third straight game, overshadowing the return of contributors like quarterback Tyler Huntley, defensive lineman Justin Madubuike, outside linebacker Justin Houston and cornerback Jimmy Smith from the reserve/COVID-19 list.

For much of Sunday’s game, the Ravens seemed like they would have enough. Even without starting center Bradley Bozeman, scratched late because of illness, the offense averaged a healthy 6 yards per play against a talented Rams defense in the first half. The Ravens entered halftime leading 13-7, helped by safety Chuck Clark’s 17-yard interception return for a touchdown late in the first quarter. Clark added his second interception of the season just one drive later.

But the Ravens should have had more in the first half, just as they should’ve had more in the second half. Late in the second quarter, Rams star defensive tackle Aaron Donald’s pressure on third-and-goal disrupted Huntley enough to throw off his pass to a wide-open Devin Duvernay in the back of the end zone. Rather than a 14-0 lead, the Ravens settled for a 10-0 margin after Tucker’s 22-yard field goal.

A similar fate awaited them in the fourth quarter. After running back Sony Michel’s 1-yard score drew the Rams to within 16-14 with about 12 minutes remaining, the Ravens answered with an emphatic drive that lacked an exclamation point.

In a seven-plus-minute possession, offensive coordinator Greg Roman called just one pass over the first 11 plays of a 12-play drive. But poor clock management undercut their hopes of a possible 23-14 lead. The Rams seemed to jump the snap as the play clock ticked down to zero on second-and-goal, stuffing running back Latavius Murray for a 2-yard loss, then watched the Ravens take a delay-of-game penalty before the ensuing third-down play.

Huntley said he thought the Ravens had snapped the ball in time on third down — “I just think [the officials] short-handed us right there” — but there was nothing he could do postgame. Tucker’s 34-yard field goal was a small consolation prize, giving the Ravens a 19-14 lead they couldn’t hold.

“Football is a game of inches, you know what I mean?” said tight end Mark Andrews (six catches for 89 yards), who broke the Ravens’ single-season receiving yards record. “That belief and that fight that this team has is still there. Obviously, in the beginning of the season, we had a bunch of those [close games] and came out on top, but that’s just sometimes the way it goes. That’s just kind of the way things went. We were right there until the very end. I wish it would’ve gone our way. Just a couple little things here and there, and we win that game.”

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They’d done enough to get close. They forced three turnovers, including a crucial red-zone strip-sack by outside linebacker Tyus Bowser in the third quarter. They ran for 165 yards despite missing Bozeman and starting left guard Ben Powers (foot). They limited Rams wide receiver Cooper Kupp to six catches for 95 yards. Tucker made all four of his field-goal attempts, including two 46-yarders.

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But they also handed the Rams a short field before a second-quarter touchdown drive with an interception by Huntley (20-for-32 for 197 yards). They ended the game without an offensive touchdown for the first time since 2018 despite two trips inside the Rams’ 10. They forced just one third-down play on the Rams’ go-ahead drive, then couldn’t get a stop on fourth down. They managed just 3 yards in 57 seconds on their impotent final drive.

Asked about his message to the team after Sunday’s loss, Harbaugh was concise. “Win. Find a way to win the game. That’s our message.” But even that likely won’t be enough. Not after more of the same Sunday.

Week 18

STEELERS@RAVENS

Sunday, 1 p.m.

TV: Chs. 13, 9 Radio: 97.9 FM, 1090 AM

Line: Ravens by 6 ½

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