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Five things we learned from the Ravens’ 41-21 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals

With control of the AFC North at stake, the injury- and COVID-ravaged Ravens never had a chance to keep up with Joe Burrow and the Cincinnati Bengals in a 41-21 loss. Here are five things we learned Sunday:

The Ravens’ quest for another AFC North title final went over a cliff on a depressing afternoon.

This was the game of the year for the Ravens, at least in terms of its impact on the standings. We all saw the analytics; they’d be a heavy favorite to capture the AFC North with a victory, a long shot with a loss. The stakes were equally high for the Bengals, who last competed for a playoff spot in 2015.

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After that preamble, however, it sure did not feel like a momentous game on the field. Instead, we saw a mismatch — one team healthy enough to play to its considerable strengths, the other rendered unrecognizable by injuries and a COVID-19 outbreak that would not relent.

The Ravens did their best to make it a fight behind a noble effort from third-string quarterback Josh Johnson, whom they signed off the New York Jets’ practice squad 11 days earlier. But the Bengals scored every time they had the ball — no, really, every time until deep in the fourth quarter — against a Baltimore defense that did not have the bodies to keep up.

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Let’s do the grim roll call again. The Ravens began the day with 10 players from their 53-man roster on the reserve/COVID-19 list and seven starters on injured reserve. Their franchise quarterback, Lamar Jackson, has not stepped onto a field in two weeks, and their gifted backup, Tyler Huntley, received COVID-19 for Christmas. They depended on 11 call-ups from the practice squad in their most important game of the season.

Bad news has become so routine for this team that we shrug it off and wonder how they’ll find another way to stay competitive. But they did not travel to Cincinnati with a team capable of matching Burrow and Co. There’s really no other way to put it after the Bengals quarterback threw for 525 yards and hung 41 points on them for the second time this season.

The Ravens have lost four games in a row, and this time, we don’t have any 2-point decisions or uninspired play calls to pick apart. We have only the vision of Burrow completing passes to Tyler Boyd, Ja’Marr Chase and Tee Higgins with a level of efficiency we might expect from a summer seven-on-seven drill.

The Ravens’ season is not over. They will have something to play for next week and probably the week after. “We’ll get a bunch of guys healthy and see what we can do,” coach John Harbaugh said.

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But it’s difficult not to think past this mess and wonder what big-picture lessons we might glean as our focus shifts to 2022. Did the Ravens invite some of this bad luck by relying on too many veterans and too many players with unsettling injury histories, especially along their offensive and defensive lines? Can they find a way to help Jackson back into his groove, especially now that they have surrounded him with exciting pass catchers? Will 2021 feel like a bad dream by this time next year?

"My job was just to try to get those guys the ball and let them do what they do best,” said quarterback Josh Johnson.

Josh Johnson told a sweet personal story in the midst of an uglier one for his team.

It was charming to watch the 35-year-old journeyman stake the Ravens to a short-lived lead. There’s no tinsel to Johnson’s game. He operated quickly, hit his targets and avoided flirting with turnovers as he completed six of eight passes on the team’s opening touchdown drive.

Actually, the term journeyman does not do Johnson justice. He had not started an NFL game in three years and before that brief run with the Washington Football Team, he had not attempted an NFL pass since 2011. Between his stints as a second- and third-stringer, he started games for Los Angeles Wildcats of the XFL and the Sacramento Mountain Lions of the United Football League. He referred to his trip through professional football as a “wild one.”

There were moments Sunday when he looked unused to playing in games. He mishandled a shotgun snap on the Ravens’ second drive to send the offense off the field, and he ran with none of the fluidity or pizazz we have come to expect from Jackson and Huntley. But if you had told the Ravens their backup’s backup would complete 28 of 40 passes for 304 yards and two touchdowns, they would surely have signed on the dotted line.

Johnson zipped throws into tight windows on third down and showed a deft touch dropping intermediate throws to his unstoppable tight end, Mark Andrews (eight catches on 10 targets for 125 yards and one touchdown). Against a team that was not scoring every time it had the ball, he would have given the Ravens a chance. Pretty cool for a guy who was drafted the same year as Joe Flacco and has now started nine NFL games.

“I didn’t really know him,” rookie wide receiver Rashod Bateman admitted. “I didn’t know how long he played in the league, but it definitely showed today that [he’s] a smart guy with the way he was reading the coverages and things like that and communicating with us. It was definitely impressive.”

The Ravens are out of viable starters in a position group that was designed to be their deepest.

Tyler Boyd faked to the outside, then cut back quickly to the inside, turning Ravens linebacker Patrick Queen like a top and buying himself so much open space that his 68-yard touchdown looked about as stressful as a Sunday jog in the neighborhood.

The score put the Bengals up 17-7, so it was not in itself a killing blow. But it told us all we needed to know about how this afternoon was going to go. Queen was stuck with a matchup he could not win, hoping for support from the back end that never materialized.

The Ravens simply could not put a secondary on the field that had a chance of stopping Boyd, Chase and Higgins. They were out of players.

It’s a wonder Harbaugh and defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale did not throw open their arms and scream at the heavens when Anthony Averett, their best remaining cornerback, lay crumpled on the field after a collision with Cincinnati tight end C.J. Uzomah, who outweighs him by 82 pounds.

With so many defensive backs sick and wounded, how could they possibly lose another? Of the cornerbacks expected to contribute going into this season, only Tavon Young was left standing.

Burrow lit up a healthier version of the Ravens for 416 yards in Week 7. Why would we expect a different result against a secondary composed of practice squad call-ups and scrapheap signings? The 2020 No. 1 overall pick produced a hell of a game — 18-for-21, 299 yards, three touchdowns — in the first half alone.

Some Ravens fans seemed angry that the Bengals were still throwing at the end of the game, but what a tempest in a teapot. When you’re the better team, you get to show off.

For all our talk of scheme and scrap, the NFL is a talent league. Every coach will tell you so in an honest moment. The Bengals, remarkably healthy in the face of the omicron coronavirus variant and 16 weeks of pro football attrition, rolled out a rising star quarterback and a trio of world-class pass catchers. The Ravens tried to stop them with guys who have spent this year fighting for jobs on the fringes of NFL rosters. It was not a workable equation.

This had to be a painful nadir for Harbaugh and general manager Eric DeCosta, who have built their defense from the backfield in and invested so much of their salary cap in the project. No amount of planning, however, could ward off ruptured ligaments, torn muscles and a frightfully contagious variant.

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If Johnson was the feel-good story on offense, Tony Jefferson II was his counterpart on defense.

There aren’t many happy stories to latch onto when you give up 575 yards, but Jefferson offered one for fans and teammates who learned to love him during his first stint with the Ravens.

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That run ended with an ACL injury two years ago, and Jefferson sat out the entire 2020 season as he recovered. He played just two defensive snaps for the San Francisco 49ers before they released him in early December.

The Ravens brought him back a few days later and threw him into the breach in Cincinnati, where he led the team with nine tackles, a sack and a pass defended. Standing beside Jefferson at the postgame news conference, Harbaugh pointed to the 29-year-old safety as an example of the Ravens doing their best under adverse circumstances.

“We have guys like Tony Jefferson sitting here. He’s probably been here for about 10 days, Tony? Two weeks, maybe?” Harbaugh said. “And he’s going out there and playing a bunch of football and playing well.”

Jefferson called the opportunity “something I would probably dream about,” as he balanced this step in his personal journey with the team’s dismaying performance against the Bengals.

Football, or any sport, can be many things at the same time. The wins and losses matter deeply to those involved, but so do the stories, many laced with pain and disappointment. Jefferson has always done his best to lift the people around him, and his career looked like it might be on its last legs before he reached his 30th birthday. A terrible run of luck on his old team created a new chance for him, and he, in turn, brought a bit of light to the Ravens on a day when few things went right.

This was not the end for the 2021 Ravens, even if it felt that way.

Going into Sunday, FiveThirtyEight gave the Ravens a 91% chance to make the playoffs with a loss to the Bengals and wins in their final two games against the Los Angeles Rams and Pittsburgh Steelers.

So their mission is pretty simple: win out.

Listen to their postgame comments and it’s apparent the Ravens still think they could get hot if they find a way into the playoffs. They remember the nerve-jangling comebacks and improbable finishes that defined the first half of their season. Older players recall 2012, when they suffered blowout losses and fired their offensive coordinator in December only to win it all.

“All that matters is getting into the playoffs,” linebacker Josh Bynes said. “We know that [nine] years ago, when we went to the playoffs, we stumbled in, we lost four out of our last five. But once we got in, we got rolling. And that’s all that matters is just getting in the playoffs, and it starts next week.”

If Jackson comes back with a mended ankle next week, could he snatch some of his old magic from the air at M&T Bank Stadium? Or is that a fool’s dream after what we saw in Cincinnati?

The Ravens are not going to become a healthy team in one week. Even as key players come back from the reserve/COVID-19 list, they could lose others to a virus that has seized control of the NFL’s late-season narrative. The Rams, with their top-10 offense and star-studded defense, will also have plenty to say about their chances.

The team that could not hang with Burrow would face rough sledding against Matthew Stafford, Aaron Donald and friends.

But the Ravens insist they have not given up, and they have earned some benefit of the doubt by competing in the face of misfortune. Andrews embodied that spirit again Sunday as he dragged multiple defenders with him on the way to a third straight game of more than 100 receiving yards (he needs 15 more to eclipse Michael Jackson for the team’s single-season franchise record). His message about the path forward was unambiguous: “It’s time to start winning some games. That’s where my head’s at.”

Week 17

RAMS@RAVENS

Sunday, 1 p.m.

TV: Chs. 45, 5 Radio: 97.9 FM, 1090 AM

Line: Rams by 3 ½

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