With one big exception, the Ravens pretty much followed the "How to Lose a Game" blueprint Thursday night. Consider:
They committed 11 penalties (four more than Cleveland) totaling 100 yards, for their first triple-digit flag day since December 2009. The nadir was a personal foul on Paul Kruger that gave the Browns a second chance to tie the game in the final seconds. Even though the Browns' Joe Thomas clearly flopped on the play, "you walk away from everything in that kind of situation," Ravens Head Coach John Harbaugh said.
They committed a red-zone turnover when Joe Flacco tossed an end-zone interception in the first quarter, and they squeezed just one turnover out of Cleveland's rookie-dominated offense. But it was a big turnover.
They were sloppy on special teams, botching an early extra point that loomed large through the rest of the game. Also, rookie kicker Justin Tucker missed a 47-yard field goal. It was his first career miss and he is entitled, but on a night when Cleveland's Phil Dawson was otherworldly, making four of four, the miss mattered.
The good news for the Ravens was they overcame it all to win for the third time in four games in 2012. And if their prior history is any precedent, they won't follow the "How to Lose" blueprint too often.
One of the seldom-discussed secrets of pro football – any sport, really – is games are given away by mistakes as often as they're won by excellent play. Teams that make a habit of not giving things away with turnovers, penalties, drops and missed field goals are usually well on their way to winning seasons, playoff berths, etc.
The Ravens have fallen into that category over the years.
Since their Super Bowl-winning season in 2000, they have forced more takeaways than any team in the league and run up a 35-5 record when their defense scores a touchdown, as it did Thursday night when Cary Williams returned an interception for a crucial score.
Also since 2000, they have finished in the top 10 in field goal percentage eight times, while their opponents have finished in the top 10 just three times. Translation: The other guys are missing more kicks.
Penalties are the one "giveaway" area in which the Ravens have struggled at times. They annually compiled some of the league's highest penalty-yardage totals in Brian Billick's final years and the early part of John Harbaugh's tenure. Penalties were a routine thorn. Remember the infamous Motor City Meltdown?
But that has changed in the past few years. The Ravens' per-game penalty yardage total was among the league's five lowest in 2011 and among the 10 lowest in 2010.
That's what made Thursday night's semi-meltdown so surprising. Generally speaking, the Ravens are averse to giving games away. I can think of one brutal exception, ahem, a recent game that ended with a dropped pass and a missed field goal – sorry to bring it up. But that's the exception, not the rule. Flacco's red-zone interception was his first since 2009, an amazing stat. He excels at protecting the ball when it matters. And the defense has maintained its big-play knack.
"Let the other guys blow it" has long been one of the Ravens' mantras, coming up huge in several of the biggest wins in franchise history, such as the 2000 playoff win in Tennessee, when the Titans' "Automatic" Al Del Greco inexplicably missed three kicks; the 2008 playoff win in Tennessee, when the top-seeded Titans gave away four turnovers; and last season's home playoff win over Houston, in which the Texans outplayed the Ravens but lost the turnover battle 4-0 and lost the game, 20-13.
With the 2012 season still just getting started, there's a lot of debate about what the Ravens need to do to make another playoff run, i.e., get more pressure from their defensive front, calibrate their run-pass balance and shore up their play in the secondary.
But what they really need to do, perhaps most of all, is remember to adhere to their first commandment: Thou Shalt Not Give the Game Away.
Don't turn it over. Grab a few takeaways. Stay cool and limit your penalties. Make your kicks.
That alone can take you far.