Eisenberg: A Moral Victory

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When Steve Hauschka's game-winning field goal attempt flew wide yesterday at the Metrodome, the Ravens had to settle for moral victories.

They had to settle for the fact that the undefeated Minnesota Vikings and their rowdy fans were celebrating a victory early in the fourth quarter and praying for survival by the end.

They had to settle for the fact that the so-called "loudest stadium in the NFL" was as silent as a library on a Sunday afternoon as the Ravens rallied from 17 points down to take the lead late in the fourth quarter.

The Ravens had to accept the fact that, while they lost, 33-31 – and looked undeniably bad at times along the way -- they exhibited so much heart and fight that it was impossible to feel too distraught about the result.

But of course, there's one problem with moral victories. You settle for those when you lose. And the Ravens, after winning their first three games, now have lost three in a row.

Welcome to the NFL, truly a bottom-line league. That epic, against-all-odds comeback that Joe Flacco and the Ravens engineered yesterday? It was, in the end, just a loss. A loss in a game the Ravens desperately needed to win.

Tough to take.

I would be writing something else if Hauschka had made the 44-yard kick, and I have no doubt that, with the Ravens entering their bye week, we're in store for two solid weeks of "Stover woulda made it." One can only hope that Hauschka, 24, is prepared for the onslaught.

Matt Stover, the Ravens' former kicker, did have a long history of delivering with the game on the line. The Ravens' reasoning for making a change after last season was sound – better kickoffs, Hauschka's stronger leg, roster flexibility – but yesterday's miss crystallized their worst fears. Yes, center Matt Katula's errant snap contributed to the miss, forcing holder Sam Koch to reach across his body before hurriedly placing the ball down, but in a dome, on artificial turf, Hauschka should make that kick.

The fact that he didn't shouldn't obscure the other issues that were in play as the Ravens stumbled early and struggled to stay in the game. Their defense is struggling against both the pass and run. The days of them brick-walling opponents appear to be over. Brett Favre, looking a lot younger than 40, threw for 278 yards and three touchdowns. Adrian Peterson rushed for 143. The Vikings repeatedly moved into scoring position with startling ease.

To the defense's credit, it did stop enough drives to force four field goals, keeping the Ravens in the game when they could have been blown out. And then the offense, which struggled just to make first downs for most of the game, suddenly couldn't be stopped.

This was, make no mistake, Flacco's finest hour as a pro. His numbers were terrific – 28 of 43 for 385 yards and two touchdowns -- but even they don't fully relate what he accomplished. The Vikings' devastating pass rush battered him for most of the game, but he survived their cocksure, withering punishment without flinching, and in the end, all but knocked them out with a flurry of big plays.

Flacco is a big-time quarterback, folks, and that's not just a moral victory to warm your hearts on another Black Monday. That's a fact.

Of course, it's also a fact that the Ravens are now 3-3, a record they surely didn't expect going into their bye. Does it sound familiar? It should. The Ravens were 3-3 a year ago, having also already experienced a three-game losing streak.

They ended up going to the AFC championship game a year ago, so you know this isn't a dead-end. The Ravens have lost three straight games by the narrowest of margins, in the final seconds. They aren't lost at sea. The Vikings, rest assured, are thrilled not to have to play a return game in Baltimore.

But how did the Ravens get from Point A (a .500 record in mid-October) to Point B (the NFL's final four) a year ago? They played tough defense, ran the ball well, and didn't make many mistakes. It's hard to see such a sure-fire recipe taking shape this year. They're going to need a different formula -- more offensive big plays, the defense somehow pulling itself together…more consistency on both sides of the ball, both from week to week and during games.

And in the end, they just have to start winning games, not moral victories.

John Eisenberg worked in the newspaper business for 28 years as a sports columnist, with much of that time coming at the Baltimore Sun. While working for the Sun, Eisenberg spent time covering the Ravens, among other teams and events, including the Super Bowl, Final Four, World Series and Olympics. Eisenberg is also the author of seven sports-themed books.

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