A year ago, the Ravens were legitimate Super Bowl contenders. They made the final four of the Super Bowl tournament and lost a game that was close in the fourth quarter.
Their success led them to think of themselves as legitimate Super Bowl contenders when this season kicked off, but in the end, they weren't. "We're not good enough yet. We've got to find a way to get better," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said after the Colts eliminated his team from the playoffs with a 20-3 thumping Saturday night in Indianapolis.
That the Ravens weren't good enough slowly became apparent during their up-and-down regular season. They were a winning team, but unlike a year ago, committed too many penalties, found too many ways to lose games, struggled offensively against top opponents and lacked overall consistency.
Their surprising dismantling of the New England Patriots in the first round of the playoffs last weekend rekindled optimism, raising the hope that they had somehow straightened themselves out just in time to make another long run deep into January, but the Colts matter-of-factly dashed that giddy dream, clearly demonstrating the difference between a legitimate contender and one that is relatively close but "not good enough yet."
The Colts are smart, consistent and dangerous on offense -- all season, not just last night. They don't commit scads of hurtful penalties. They seldom turn in clunker performances. They always move the ball. Granted, they're built around one of the greatest quarterbacks in history, which helps immeasurably. But you're going to have to beat them because they're not going to beat themselves.
The Ravens have their share of winning qualities, too. They always come to play and leave a mark on your helmet. Their running game is tough, their defense solid. As their iconic stars such as Ray Lewis and Ed Reed age, they're building a new nucleus around young stars Ray Rice, Michael Oher and others. Hey, don't forget that only eight of the NFL's 32 teams were still alive when this weekend's round of playoff games began.
But like most teams, the Ravens have some improving to do, and last night's defeat plainly showcased their problem spots, many of which were in evidence throughout the season. They had a 64-yard kickoff return and a 54-yard interception return negated by penalties -- the final killer straws of a flag-filled season. They couldn't attain the same level of play they reached in New England. Until they become more consistent and stop hurting themselves so much, they're almost surely going to fall short.
And quite simply, they have to become more potent offensively, especially in the air. In the final analysis, they just weren't balanced enough with the ball this season. Their passing game was ranked 18th in the league, too low for a team with such big dreams, and even that modest standing was attained only because of big performances against losing teams such as the Lions, Bears and Chiefs.
The passing game began the season brilliantly but spiraled in the wrong direction as the season progressed. A multitude of factors contributed. Quarterback Joe Flacco got banged up a bit and started settling too often for check-down throws to Rice. At times, he was clearly a second-year guy, still learning on the job. But the decline wasn't all about him. His receivers didn't scare many opponents. And offensive coordinator Cam Cameron's play-calling was so predictable last night, with the Ravens running on 12 of their first 14 first-down plays, that broadcaster Dan Dierdorf called him on it.
The New England victory was achieved with just four completions, a freaky circumstance. But their passing problems eventually caught up with them. When the Colts, with a good but not great defense, slowed the running game and forced the Ravens to pass last night, they couldn't get anything going and soon fell behind.
If they're going to consistently win playoff games, they're going to have to make their passing game more challenging for quality opponents. Flacco's continuing development should take care of some of that, but he needs more dangerous targets.
In the end, a week after scoring a signature win in New England that won't soon be forgotten, the Ravens found themselves across the line from an opponent that was more complete, sound and consistent, a legitimate Super Bowl contender. So, now they know what one looks like. And the challenge of becoming one continues.
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.