Eisenberg: Tough Loss, But Still Alive

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The Ravens have been in a giving mood this season, ranking among the NFL leaders in penalties while displaying a penchant for critical late-game miscues such as Mark Clayton's drop, Steve Hauschka's miss and Joe Flacco's red-zone pick -- I don't need to provide the details at this point, do I? It's been hard on the fans but harder on the players. Take away even just a few errors and they'd already be assured of a playoff berth.

They outdid themselves yesterday. Saying they were charitable would be an understatement. They did enough right to beat the Steelers in Pittsburgh, perhaps handily. They had a win in their grasp in the second half with the score tied and momentum on their side. But between 11 penalties for 113 yards, three turnovers and a dropped touchdown pass by, of all people, Derrick Mason, they gave a shaky opponent just enough room to eke out a close win.

Ravens coach John Harbaugh didn't care for the "gave it away" questions posed after Pittsburgh's 23-20 victory, telling reporters, "You write the article any way you want; we're going to Oakland," but Ravens cornerback Domonique Foxworth said, "missed opportunities were the moral of this story." Indeed, they were.

It wasn't the refs. Please, let's put a fork in the baseless conspiracy theories about the league having it in for Baltimore. The personal fouls, blocks in the back and holding and illegal contact calls that continually set the Ravens back yesterday have been rearing themselves all year. Maybe a couple of calls were debatable, but the team's flaggy habit is the problem, not the zebras.

The refs didn't make Kelley Washington hold, nullifying a Willis McGahee touchdown run yesterday. They didn't make Terrell Suggs throw an illegal block, nullifying a Foxworth interception return for a touchdown. They didn't make Haloti Ngata steamroll two players after the whistle on a punt return, costing the team great field position. I could go on. It's a reflection on the coaches, players, everyone, and quite simply, needs to be the team's top offseason fix. Enough already.

And besides, how can anyone say the league has it in for Baltimore when it almost seems there's a league-wide conspiracy to get the Ravens into the playoffs this season regardless of how many frustrating losses they experience?

They have won just five of 12 games since their fast start in September, but the other contenders in the AFC wild card race have coughed, sputtered and littered the landscape with so many defeats that the Ravens have remained in contention – in good shape, actually.

Amazingly, the Ravens began yesterday as the No. 5 seed (if the playoffs were to begin then), lost a crucial game, yet ended the day still in control of their playoff destiny. Talk about a "c'mon, man" moment. After all this frustration, if the Ravens win in Oakland Sunday, they'll make the playoffs.

The odds are favorable, if you ask me. The Ravens are 5-0 this season against doormats (Browns, Chiefs etc.) and the Raiders are 5-10 after getting spanked by the Browns yesterday. The bizarre Raiders have scored several upsets this season, winning in Pittsburgh and beating the Eagles, but the Ravens have dominated such opponents.

If they pull it off, we'll surely hear they "don't deserve" their spot in the playoffs, but that's absurd. I understand they have made too many of the kinds of mistakes playoff-caliber teams usually don't make, but this isn't figure skating; style points and degree of difficulty aren't factored in. The teams with the best records go, period. If that's the Ravens, they deserve it.

And please, don't tell me that even if they make it they're certain to lose their first round game. The way the NFL is going these days, there's no telling what might happen. The league is more than just unpredictable. It's flat-out bizarre. Teams look terrific one week and miserable the next. The lowly Bucs beat the lordly Saints yesterday. Most games are close, decided by a few plays. The Arizona Cardinals almost won the Super Bowl last January after going 9-7 during the regular season.

No, the Ravens didn't look like a team capable of making a playoff run yesterday. They repeated too many of the mistakes that have dogged them all season. They clearly have work to do in the offseason. But for better or worse, all that matters now, quite remarkably, is they're still alive.

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.

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