Eisenberg: You Get What You Deserve In Close Games


Many Ravens have sung a similar chorus this week: We just need to start winning close games, they say.

You can't argue. Even though their 3-5 record is a disappointment, the wheels haven't come off their wagon. Their last five games have been decided by 17 points in all, with the Ravens on the short end in four of the games – by three, two, three and six points.

But I would say their remedy isn't quite as simple as it sounds. The Ravens don't just have to win close games. They have to be good enough to win close games. The distinction is crucial.

Almost half the games in the NFL are decided by a touchdown or less. Winning them is an art, a vital skill. But you can't work at it, can't practice it. Either you're adept at it or you're not.

For that reason, and because so many of the games boil down to a timely play or two, some believe that luck is involved, almost a random element. And indeed, luck does play a part in some outcomes.

But generally, what happens at the end of games reflects the performances that precede crunch time. You got what you deserved. Over the course of a season, a consensus builds on a foundation of fact, not randomness. You win or lose for a reason, or a combination of reasons.

A year ago, the Ravens were 5-3 in games decided by three points or less, and this year, they're 1-3. It's not hard to pinpoint why there's been such a change.

Last year, the Ravens had a decent running game, enabling them to control the clock. That can be decisive in a tight game, and this year, the Ravens' running game is among the NFL's least productive. Big difference.

Just in general, the Ravens had a more potent offense in 2012, averaging almost four more points per game than in 2013 so far. As Yogi Berra might say, you need to score to win.

They've also had to consistently play from behind, courtesy of their frustratingly slow starts. Incredibly, the last time they held a lead was in Week 5 against the Dolphins, more than a month ago. When you're always (and I mean always) on the short end as games play out, winning close ones surely is that much harder.

Lastly, the Ravens are suffering from a dearth of playmaking on both sides of the ball, a major issue in games that boil down to a couple of big plays.

Playmaking is a quality that's hard to hone or quantify, but you know it when you see it. Last year, running back Ray Rice made the difference in an overtime win in San Diego with his "Hey, Diddle Diddle" play, one of 11 by Rice in 2012 in which he gained at least 20 yards. This year, he has zero plays of 20-plus yards. His longest gain is 18 yards.

But Rice is far from the only culprit. As Defensive Coordinator Dean Pees pointed out this week, while his unit is playing well enough overall to be ranked in the top 10 in many statistical categories, it is struggling in two areas that are difference-makers in close games – generating turnovers and making fourth-quarter stops.

"I like being ranked in the top 10 in all those areas, but also to win games, you've got to finish," Pees said.

The Cincinnati Bengals have opened up a 2.5-game lead on the Ravens in the AFC North largely by doing what the Ravens haven't done, make winning plays in tight games. The Bengals are 5-2 in contests decided by a touchdown or less.

For the Ravens to gain ground, they're almost definitely going to have to reverse their fortunes in close games, starting with Sunday's huge, last-stand game of sorts against the Bengals at M&T Bank Stadium. But it isn't just a matter of flipping a switch or counting on fate to smile instead of frown. They need to be playing better for good things to happen when a game is on the line.

The bullying controversy unfolding in Miami is a sad affair. It's lamentable that the tactics one player thought would "toughen up" another involve such personal degradation.

I know what I think, but I also know I have nowhere close to a fully-formed understanding of the players, their relationship or the Dolphins' inner workings. Put simply, I don't really know what went on or why, which makes me loath to comment.

Opinions are easily tossed around from a distance, but I'm going to wait and let the lawyers and investigators do their jobs.

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