There can be no sugar-coating what happened yesterday at Paul Brown Stadium. A superior first-place football team, the Cincinnati Bengals, easily defeated an inconsistent team with a .500 record -- the Ravens.
The winners were better on offense, better on defense, better in the kicking game, and much sharper at the outset. They jumped ahead early, never looked back, and left the Ravens in a precarious state.
"There are so many things for us to be concerned about right now," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said.
Those things include a) the fact that the Ravens lead the NFL in penalty yards and again lacked discipline yesterday, yielding 80 yards in flags, b) the fact that their young kicker, Steve Hauschka, missed another important fourth-quarter field goal, showing more nerves than the team wants to see, and c) the fact that their pass defense, ranked in the bottom half of the league, succumbed again, as the Bengals' Carson Palmer completed 20 of 33 passes for 223 yards.
To their credit, the Ravens hung tough after falling behind by 17 points; given how badly they were stomped in a first half in which they had three first downs to Cincy's 16, the fact that they briefly made things interesting in the fourth quarter was borderline miraculous.
But their rally was undone by what was, to me, the decisive difference between these teams: The Bengals' cornerbacks, Johnathan Joseph and Leon Hall, consistently blanketed the Ravens' wide receivers and denied big downfield plays, while the Ravens' cornerbacks often couldn't keep up with Cincinnati's wideouts.
That was the game right there. The Bengals had possession for 40 of the game's 60 minutes, an astounding difference, because their wide receivers were continually open on third downs while the Ravens' wide receivers continually weren't. Palmer hit Chad Ochocinco and Laveranues Coles downfield for big gains and first downs, while Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco repeatedly had to dump off to his backs and tight ends short of the first-down marker.
Joseph and Hall had their entire team's back yesterday. Baltimore's wideouts caught just five balls for 56 yards, while Cincinnati's caught 12 for 158. Harbaugh said the Bengals, coming off their bye week, changed many of their packages and tendencies, confusing Flacco, but still, the difference in cornerbacks was hard to ignore.
Of course, that can happen when a team drafts cornerbacks in the first round in successive years, as the Bengals did in 2006 with Joseph and 2007 with Hall. Both have struggled at times in what is now the pro game's cruelest position because of rule changes designed to promote passing and scoring, but the athleticism and instincts that made them first-round picks were evident yesterday.
The Ravens, meanwhile, are going with Fabian Washington, who started three of 15 games as a third-year player for the Raiders in 2007 before the Ravens acquired him, and Domonique Foxworth, who had started 28 of 60 games in his career when the Ravens signed him last offseason. Both are solid pros who make their share of plays, and they certainly would benefit from a more consistent pass rush up front. But they aren't "shut-down" guys.
Lardarius Webb, a rookie, replaced Washington when the veteran went out with an injury yesterday, and Harbaugh praised Webb for "flying around, making plays, covering well." But for the Ravens to see real change in their pass defense, they're probably going to have to invest a high draft pick or two, as they did when they selected Chris McAlister in the first round in 1999. McAlister was a cornerstone of the secondary for many years, playing in three Pro Bowls.
But that's a decision for another day. Right now, the Ravens have more immediate concerns, such as how to salvage a season heading in the wrong direction after four losses in the past five games.
They're just not as good as the Bengals this year – a hard concept to accept given Cincy's losing history, but pretty clear after a home-and-home sweep – and they can forget about winning the AFC North. Their only hope of making the playoffs is as a wild card team, and to be in the hunt for that, they're going to have to get themselves together in a hurry, start playing first halves with more urgency, stop committing so many penalties, start making big kicks, pressure quarterbacks, defend the pass.
Time to get busy.
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.