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Five things we learned from the Ravens’ 20-19 loss to the Los Angeles Rams

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

The Ravens lost to the Los Angeles Rams, 20-19, on Sunday, yet another close defeat in their first five-game losing streak under coach John Harbaugh and first since losing nine in a row in 2007. Baltimore’s playoff chances are all but gone as it has gone from the AFC’s No. 1 seed to the No. 10 seed seemingly in the blink of an eye. Here’s what we learned from another tough loss:

We now know the story of the 2021 Ravens: valiant but doomed.

The Ravens had no business holding a lead against the Los Angeles Rams going into the final minute.

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The Rams suited up Aaron Donald and Cooper Kupp and Matthew Stafford and, well, you get the picture. The Ravens relied on a quarterback who had never started in the NFL before the third weekend in November and a secondary stripped of its top three cornerbacks.

The Rams had won four in a row and were fighting only for a better playoff seed. The Ravens had lost four in a row and were clinging to postseason hopes by their fingernails.

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Just as they had against the Green Bay Packers two weeks earlier, the raggedy Ravens did almost everything necessary to pull off an upset. They forced three turnovers and scored a defensive touchdown for the first time all season. They built an early lead and controlled the clock for a crucial stretch of the fourth quarter.

“I thought we were in control the whole game,” tight end Mark Andrews said.

They needed one stop on fourth-and-5 to send the Rams home empty-handed. But Odell Beckham Jr. wedged his body in front of cornerback Tavon Young and caught Stafford’s pass for exactly 5 yards. Another pass to Beckham, with 57 seconds to go, put the Ravens down for the first time all day. They would not rally.

Throw out their 20-point loss in Cincinnati last weekend, and they have dropped four games by a combined five points over the last five weeks — a horse-sized bitter pill to swallow for a team that won six one-score games over the first 12 weeks of the season. Can you live with disappointment like that by looking at the greater context — the multitude of injuries the Ravens have endured, the bouts with COVID-19?

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It was a testament to the brutality of this season that they almost seemed healthy going into the Rams game, despite the absences of their franchise quarterback, Lamar Jackson, their top remaining cornerback, Anthony Averett, their starting center, Bradley Bozeman, and their standout rookie pass rusher, Odafe Oweh.

“We’ve got a fighting team, same as this city,” safety Chuck Clark said, processing another down-to-the-wire defeat for this battered bunch.

But the Ravens have run out of weeks to celebrate their resilience and look ahead to the next opportunity. They will go into their season finale against the Pittsburgh Steelers with only a faint chance to make the playoffs, somber truth for a team that arrived at training camp expecting to contend for the Super Bowl. They held the AFC’s top seed five weeks ago.

“We don’t do this stuff for moral victories,” Andrews said.

The Ravens defense did what it could not for most of the season: force turnovers.

They failed to stop the Rams at the end, but otherwise, the Ravens did their damnedest to bounce back from a defensive apocalypse a week earlier in Cincinnati.

They had forced a piddling 11 turnovers coming into the game, ahead of only the Jacksonville Jaguars. But Clark made a terrific read to jump in front of Rams tight end Tyler Higbee for a pick-six that put the Ravens up 7-0.

“It was just something that I’d seen on film, individually, this week,” he said. He made another interception, on a leaping catch over the middle, early in the second quarter.

If Clark’s pick-six was the Ravens’ most important play of the first half, outside linebacker Tyus Bowser nearly matched it on the opening drive of the second half when he contorted his body to strip Stafford at the Baltimore 20-yard line. Bowser wiped out near-certain points for Los Angeles and set the Ravens off on a 14-play drive that ate up 6:23 and built their lead to 16-7.

Even when the Ravens had played well on defense in previous weeks, they had not changed the scoreboard so directly by stealing the ball. They needed such plays to stay with the Rams.

“It was good to see a breakthrough in that area,” Harbaugh said. “We’ve been working hard, [trying] to find a way to get some turnovers. I thought Chuck just made two great plays back there.”

Tyler Huntley again played with poise at difficult junctures, but the Ravens needed a cleaner game from him.

Huntley has come up a few plays short against two of the best teams in the NFC, impressive for an undrafted free agent who had never started an NFL game before the third weekend in November. We never would have expected the Ravens to hang in these games without Jackson. To a man, coaches and teammates trust Huntley’s calm under fire.

But his downbeat demeanor after this loss spoke to his disappointment. He knew he had not played his best in the red zone, taking a delay-of-game penalty on the Rams’ 4-yard-line when the Ravens had a chance to go up 23-14. He knew he had overlooked chances to run for first downs and to connect with Andrews and Marquise Brown on deep strikes.

“We’ve got to stop hurting ourselves,” Huntley said. “We controlled the game the whole day. We’ve got to stop hurting ourselves.”

Huntley was nowhere near the same page as Brown on a tide-turning interception just before halftime. Brown slanted and took off deep, while Huntley seemed to expect a post-corner route to the sideline. Rams safety Jordan Fuller was the only person waiting for the ball, and his interception set up a three-play touchdown drive for Los Angeles.

“Hollywood beat him a different way than I was thinking; it was just a miscommunication,” Huntley said. “I wish I could have that one back.”

He responded with now-familiar poise, using his arm and legs to lead the Ravens on a nine-play, 51-yard drive to seize back three points before halftime. He answered the Rams’ next touchdown, in the fourth quarter, with another scoring drive. But that one was bittersweet, because Huntley wanted a touchdown, not a field goal. He thought he had taken the snap in time to avoid that delay of game penalty on third down.

Teammates did not want Huntley to hang his head. “I think just the way he sees the game, he’s awesome,” Andrews said. “It’s been incredibly fun to be able to play with him.”

For his part, Huntley did not wish to be graded on a curve. He knew the Ravens did not finish drives as crisply as they had when he started against the Packers. This time, he could not hit on enough quick passes (he completed 16 of 20 inside 10 yards, 4 of 9 outside 10 yards) to make up for the big-play element that’s missing with Jackson on the sideline.

“We had to play our best football, but we played a little bit under that,” he said.

Mark Andrews became the greatest single-season receiver in team history on a day when he could not enjoy it.

Andrews gave the fans an appreciative wave after the announcement that his 18-yard catch in the second quarter pushed him past Michael Jackson for the team’s single-season yardage record.

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That reception kicked off another excellent game for the Pro Bowl tight end, who snared all six passes thrown his way and pushed his yardage total to 1,276. Only five tight ends in NFL history have gone for more yards in a season, and with a big game in Week 18, Andrews could challenge Travis Kelce’s record of 1,416. He’s one catch short of 100 and five short of passing Derrick Mason for the highest single-season total in Ravens history.

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Again, we saw Andrews catch a seemingly routine pass, turn upfield and drag multiple defenders with him for a 15-yard gain. He always had an exceptional feel for slipping into open pockets in coverage, but no one would call Andrews a finesse player anymore. We routinely see him use his 6-foot-5, 256-pound frame to add yards after the catch.

“It’s an honor,” Andrews said when asked about his new receiving record.

He did not look happy, however. He has averaged 103 receiving yards per game over his past five, and the Ravens have lost every one, intolerable for an athlete who would trade his notch in the record book for even one more victory.

The Ravens swore to fight on, but they’re almost certainly out of chances.

There were elaborate scenarios in which the Ravens could have been eliminated, but regardless of those arcane details, the point was clear: they needed to win to maintain a reasonable chance to play in the postseason.

Going into Sunday, FiveThirtyEight said the Ravens’ playoff chances would increase to 59% with a win over the Rams. After the loss, they dropped to 6%. But they got even worse as the Los Angeles Chargers beat the Denver Broncos and the Cincinnati Bengals and Las Vegas Raiders also secured victories, meaning the Ravens’ playoff chances sat at just 2% as of Sunday night. Only the Miami Dolphins helped keep them alive by losing in Tennessee.

The Ravens clung to that life in the moments after the game.

“All we can control is winning next week,” Young said. “Keep our heads up, and let’s go.”

“Win,” Harbaugh said when asked his postgame message to the team. “Find a way to win the game — that’s our message.”

We’ve heard similar tunnel vision from the Ravens after each of their last five losses, and it’s probably true they will build to a spirited effort against the Steelers. They will seemingly face their oldest rival, Ben Roethlisberger, for the final time, adding a charge to the proceedings regardless of playoff implications.

But their determined words carried a greater sense of futility this time around. When Beckham caught those two decisive passes, they had to sense the light blinking out on a frustrating season.

Week 18

STEELERS@RAVENS

Sunday, 1 p.m.

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

Line: Ravens by 4

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