In no way am I going to attempt to depict the Ravens’ loss in Cleveland as anything other than a disappointing clunker. That’s certainly what it was.
Even taking into account that the Browns are improved, which they surely are, the Ravens came in flying high and offered a version of themselves that won’t take them far.
When they whipped the Steelers in Pittsburgh a week earlier, I wrote that it was their best shot, i.e., the best they could offer. By definition, I’d say, their third loss to Cleveland in Head Coach John Harbaugh’s 11-year tenure is probably the opposite, i.e., as bad as it gets for a team some analysts believe could go far.
If the drastic pendulum swings have you feeling unsteady, you’re not alone. Watching a team go from one extreme to the other in a week is enough to make anyone dizzy.
You have to hope the team will eventually find a more consistent level somewhere between those polar extremes – nearer its best shot than its worst, of course.
But regardless, if what we saw Sunday was the Ravens setting the bar for how low they could go in 2018, strangely, the dank performance was flecked with possibilities.
I mean, if that’s their absolute worst, was it really that stupendously horrific?
They were strong on one side of the ball. The defense played well enough to win, as it has all season save for one half in Cincinnati.
Sure, there were a few plays Defensive Coordinator Don (Wink) Martindale would like back, but his unit is performing at a playoff-caliber level. If it continues to do that, it will keep the Ravens close, giving them a chance to win every Sunday.
As for the offense, there can be no sugar-coating its touchdown-less dud of an outing in Cleveland. Key drops, a pair of turnovers and a low third-down conversation rate made for a miserable day.
Nonetheless, this was different from other Baltimore offensive performances best dismissed as clunkers in recent years. The Ravens moved the ball. There was no seemingly endless “blackout” stretch of three-and-outs.
Remember those games? The Ravens didn’t register a first down until late in the third quarter of a loss in Jacksonville in 2011. They managed just 186 and 208 offensive yards in losses to the Jaguars and Minnesota Vikings last season.
By contrast, they finished with 25 first downs and 410 offensive yards Sunday. They left points on the table and left Cleveland with a spate of frustrating woulda-coulda-shouldas to ponder.
No, quarterback Joe Flacco wasn’t sharp. No, the new wideouts didn’t have an easy time gaining separation. No, there can’t be many more offensive outings like that if the Ravens want to have a successful season.
But it’s one thing for an offense to have limited weapons and come to a virtual standstill, and another thing for it to have plenty of weapons and options and end a close game ruing the inability to take full advantage of them.
The latter was Sunday’s game in a nutshell, and again, I’m not seeking to bring light to it, but the simple fact that you can see the possibilities is reason to believe better times could resume.
Even after Sunday, the Ravens are No. 11 in the league in average yards per game, No. 8 in average passing yards and No. 11 in scoring. Those are neighborhoods you want to live in.
And to be clear, I think we’d be having an entirely different conversation, far less depressing, if just one of the 160 plays in Sunday’s game had unfolded differently. If Flacco hadn’t thrown an interception at the 2-yard line and the Ravens had gone ahead 10-0 in the second quarter, they would have won. It’s amazing what winning, even winning ugly, enables you to dismiss.
Of course, Flacco did throw that pick and the Ravens did lose, putting heavy pressure on them to turn things around and win Sunday in Tennessee. It’s a major challenge, but if they simply do a better job of turning yards into points, as they did pretty much all year until Sunday, they’ll have a real shot.