There are games you're supposed to win – games that, as they evolve, just have your name on it. The Ravens let one get away yesterday.
A whole lot of things had to go right for them just to stay close to the Indianapolis Colts – winners of 18 straight regular season games and six in a row (counting playoffs) against the Ravens going back to 2002, including last year's 31-3 shellacking – and lo and behold, a whole lot of things did go right.
Their defense forced three turnovers, kept Peyton Manning off the field for long stretches and held the high-scoring Colts to just 17 points, 11 below their average. Meanwhile, the Ravens' offense, which had struggled lately, repeatedly moved into scoring range, running 66 plays to Indy's 56 as Derrick Mason caught nine passes for 142 yards and Ray Rice totaled 135 rushing and receiving yards.
It was a day when the Colts committed the untimely penalties that ended possessions and hurt their field position; a day when replay challenges and breaks seemed to mostly go the Ravens' way; a day when the Colts' high-octane pass rush was rendered ineffective by the Ravens' fine young offensive tackles, giving Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco plenty of time to move the offense.
"We got their worst today," Rice said of the Colts. "If Peyton Manning thinks he played a good game, he's fooling himself. They're used to scoring 30-35 points. I mean, they played their worst game."
Indeed, the Colts, a fine team, didn't play anywhere near their best. The Ravens had a lot to do with that. The Ravens played one of their best games of 2009, but they still lost, 17-15, adding to the frustration they already feel.
"Little things got us," Mason said in a somber locker room.
None of those little things, by themselves, were decisive; the game didn't turn on a single play, as so many do. But added together, the Ravens' litany of small mistakes cost them a game with their name on it.
Their offense settled for field goals instead of touchdowns five times, including once after a first-and-goal at the Indy one. ("Inexcusable," Ravens center Matt Birk said.) New kicker Billy Cundiff hooked a 30-yard field goal in the third quarter (but otherwise hit five in a nice debut). Flacco threw a critical late interception when the offense was within Cundiff's range. Ravens coach John Harbaugh gave up two timeouts on one sequence in the final minutes, trying to finesse the challenge rules in what he called "a bad job by me." And Ed Reed, trying to do too much at the wrong time, fumbled away a final possession on an ill-advised lateral.
Reverse any one, especially the rampant field goal habit, and the Ravens could have celebrated an upset instead of slinking away with a 5-5 record. But in what has become a recurring theme this season, they found ways to lose.
"I keep saying it – we were in the (position) to win the game," Rice said. "One of these days we're going to."
Somewhat incredibly, they're still in the wild card race thanks to Pittsburgh's second straight defeat, an upset in Kansas City yesterday. But their task is daunting.
"Win every game, period. That's what we have to do," Mason said, "Anyone who thinks we can get away with anything less than that is lying to themselves."
To make that happen, the Ravens need to borrow a key page from the playbook of the team they had on the ropes yesterday. The Colts don't just win high-scoring shootouts, as their reputation suggests. They win when their offense sputters and their defense makes plays. They win when little is working and, well, somebody does something. They don't give away much, and when they do, they overcome it.
"In the playoffs (in 2006) they didn't even score a touchdown and they still beat us (by a 15-6 score)," Ravens linebacker Jarrett Johnson said. "I know one thing: You have to put these guys away when you have a chance."
Down the stretch in 2008, the Ravens, like the Colts, became a team that always found a way to win -- a team that hung around and eventually beat you if you didn't knock them out.
In 2009, for whatever reason, the same magic just isn't there.
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.