Preston: Regardless of shortcomings, Ravens prove they're contenders

There is no such thing as a moral victory in the NFL, but the Ravens came as close as any team can get Sunday.

The Ravens lost, 24-23, to the New Orleans Saints before an announced crowd of 70,639 at M&T Bank Stadium, but they proved they are one of the best teams in the NFL. Absolutely no one thought that at the beginning of the season.

Because of a remaining schedule that includes some of league’s top quarterbacks, the Ravens might not win 10 games this season, but they are much improved over the past couple of years.

There was a playoff atmosphere here Sunday. The Saints came to town having won four straight and boasting one of the league’s best quarterbacks in Drew Brees, leading one of the league’s top offenses. The Ravens held them to 339 yards of total offense and had a six-play, 81-yard scoring drive in the closing seconds, but lost when Justin Tucker missed the extra-point attempt.

Think about it for a second.

Tucker missed an extra point. It’s so incredible. Tucker converts field goals and extra points to the point in which Baltimore fans go to the bathroom or stand in the concession line before the attempt because he is Mr. Automatic.

But on Sunday, he struck out.

Tucker is forgiven because he has won so many games for the Ravens. Some might point fingers at the snap or the holder, but we’ll just put this one in the fluke category.

“You’re talking about one of the top kickers, and I don’t think he’s every missed an extra point — ever,” New Orleans coach Sean Payton said. “So, it’s funny sometimes how this game is. It was a significant play.”

One play never costs a team a game. Upon further review, it is usually seven to 10 plays that cause a team to lose. Coming into the game, there was a belief that the Ravens could win, but once it was revealed that starting offensive linemen James Hurst (right tackle) and Alex Lewis (left guard) and starting cornerback Marlon Humphrey were out because of injuries, it seemed almost impossible for the Ravens to win.

The key for this team is balance. They have enough talent on both sides of the ball to beat most teams, and the Ravens showed a lot of heart Sunday. Rookie Orlando Brown Jr. replaced Hurst and the Ravens gave him a lot of help in pass protection against defensive end Cameron Jordan, but Brown was solid in his first start.

On the other side of the line, rookie Bradley Bozeman started for Lewis and played reasonably well, good enough that there is no rush to get Lewis back into the starting lineup. Even more impressive was that Bozeman kept going on and off the field with a calf or hamstring injury.

Humphrey’s absence hurt more than originally thought. Without him, New Orleans singled out cornerback Jimmy Smith, and the Saints victimized him several times. Humphrey might have been able to spare Smith some grief.

“What was this, like their fourth win in road and they were coming off a bye?” Ravens safety Eric Weddle said. “We had them at home and you don’t want to lose home games, but we went toe-to-toe.

“This was a good test for us, very intense. And we were right there with them. We played well at times, but not well enough. If we had made a few more first downs or had gotten them off the field on more third downs, we could have pulled this out. But, you have to tip your hat to Drew Brees. There were some plays that he made that were great ones. But we will build from this. This type of game will help us as the season goes along.”

Entering the game, the Ravens had weaknesses. They couldn’t get consistent pressure on the quarterback with their front four and they allowed receivers and tight ends to work the middle of the field both in front and behind their safeties.

Brees completed 22 of 30 passes, but he only got hot for one stretch. He finished with a quarterback rating of 114.9, but only had 212 passing yards. The Ravens sacked him only once but pressured him several other times. Outside linebackers Terrell Suggs and Za’Darius Smith played well, and second-year outside linebacker Tim Williams showed more promise.

The Ravens are still missing a big-time, every-down threat at running back. Part of the problem has been the inconsistent play of the offensive line, but this team has only a group of runners that gives them an average running game at best.

Regardless of their shortcomings, the Ravens will now be recognized as legitimate contenders. New Orleans was generally regarded as one of the top teams in the league, along with the New England Patriots, the Kansas City Chiefs and the Los Angeles Rams.

The biggest difference from a year ago is that the Ravens now have offensive weapons in receivers Michael Crabtree, Willie Snead IV and John Brown. They have a healthy Joe Flacco at quarterback and a defense that has proven itself and gotten better each week.

The Saints had nine possessions Sunday, and the Ravens had eight. Flacco isn’t as great as Brees. Brees put passes in areas where only his receivers could catch the ball. Flacco isn’t as accurate, but he was effective Sunday. The loss to the Saints was disappointing, but the Ravens can bounce back.

The Ravens could lose their next two games because they travel to Carolina next weekend and then host the Pittsburgh Steelers the following week.

But after Sunday, there is a different feeling around town about this team. The Ravens are better than almost anyone expected. They almost pulled off a moral victory against the Saints.

mike.preston@baltsun.com

twitter.com/MikePrestonSun

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