There were a couple of times in the second half Sunday, especially late, when I thought the Ravens were going to pull out a win in Buffalo. I had seen this movie before, and as troubling as it was, at least it had a happy ending.
Admit it: you had the same thought. The Ravens have made a habit of winning such games in recent years, games in which they don't play well and look doomed to defeat, but somehow come away with a win.
They find a way, steal the game. It's what winning teams do.
The Ravens did it last year in San Diego (Hey, Diddle Diddle) and also in Kansas City and Pittsburgh, where they won without their offense putting the ball in the end zone.
Shoot, they did it in their epic playoff win in Denver. Down to their last strike, they stole that one, too.
In a league in which most games are close and the margin between success and failure is thin, the spoils go to teams that find a way, steal games that appear lost or, at best, up for grabs. It's not a quantifiable trait that enables them to do it. There's no statistic. It's just a combination of grit, heart, playmaking and sheer stubbornness at work.
The Ravens didn't have enough of it to steal a win Sunday.
Coming from 20-7 down on a day when a lot of things went very wrong, they maneuvered themselves to the verge of success. Down by three, they had a first down at midfield. With just under two minutes to play, the air had gone out of Ralph Wilson Stadium. Everyone could feel it coming. The Bills and their fans were waiting for the dagger to the chest, a familiar disappointment.
But it was the Ravens who frittered away the game with Joe Flacco's fifth interception. The Bills were the ones who found a way to win.
The list of what the Ravens didn't do in the game is long and will be analyzed all week. They didn't run the ball at all. They didn't block well. They got pushed around in the middle. They were sloppy with turnovers, penalties and drops.
But the biggest thing they didn't do was exhibit their customary resourcefulness and offset all their problems with a win.
It wasn't because of a lack of grit, heart or effort. The Ravens had all that. It was a lack of playmaking that did them in. No one stepped up when it mattered most, and a game was lost instead of stolen.
You can be sure the Ravens are going to find themselves in the same position on some other Sunday this season, especially on the road, where the going always seems to be tough. They're going to need a steal.
It's what winning teams consistently do, and the Ravens can only hope they haven't lost their touch.
There are few absolutes in pro football, a complex game with many interlocking movable parts. Assessing blame or credit is never as simple as it appears.
But having said that, I believe I can state with authority this one ironclad absolute: If the Ravens don't figure out how to run the ball better, they're going nowhere this season.
Sure, there are other issues to address, starting with Flacco's*newly acquired *penchant for throwing interceptions. And yes, it's true the Ravens somehow played .500 ball in September without much of a ground game. On Sunday, they almost came back to win after completely abandoning the run in the second quarter.
Ravens Head Coach John Harbaugh stood by that unusual decision Monday, and as I wrote after the game, I understood it. The Ravens' run game looked so utterly lost that it needed to be shelved. Forget philosophy. They had to go and try to win a game.
But in the long run, they have to be able to control the ball, establish physical superiority, grind out drives. It's how they play, what they do. A running game takes the pressure off their passing game, off their defense, off everything. If they can't run, their play-action fakes won't work, their passing game will also suffer and no one will like the end result. The failure of the running game is tantamount to a wrecking ball into the Ravens' plans for 2013.
The right building blocks are all in place -- veteran linemen, an All-Pro fullback, good backs. What's wrong is a bit of a mystery.
The stakes are high as the search for a fix continues.