Late For Work 12/13: Seven Takeaways From Monday Night, Including Ravens' Playoff Path

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The Ravens came close, but didn't pull off a comeback win over the New England Patriots after falling into a 20-point deficit.

Below are seven takeaways from Baltimore's 30-23 loss:

1) Ravens Still Control Their Playoff Fate

Win, and the Ravens are in.

It's as simple as that.

They don't need help from another team suffering a late-season stumble (although it wouldn't hurt in the wild-card race). But if the Ravens win their final three games, they'll take home the AFC North crown and punch a ticket to the postseason.

Yes, the Ravens would have loved to make a statement against the top-seeded Patriots on a primetime stage, but they must quickly brush off the loss because everything is still in front of them.

"In the grand scheme of things, this loss doesn't change a whole lot," wrote The Baltimore Sun's Jeff Zrebiec. "All along, the Ravens were probably going to need to go into Pittsburgh and beat the Steelers to make the playoffs.

"But the performance did cast some significant doubt that the Ravens are capable of winning three games to close out the regular season."    

The biggest game on the Ravens' remaining schedule is their Christmas day showdown with the division rival Pittsburgh Steelers, but for that game to be meaningful, the Ravens must take care of business at home next week against the Philadelphia Eagles (5-8).

AFC Playoff Seeding After Week 14
1. New England Patriots (11-2): New England didn't clinch a first-round bye with the win over Baltimore, but it seems inevitable that they will … and maybe even more.
2. Kansas City Chiefs (10-3): Kansas City owns the tiebreaker over the Raiders in the AFC West.
3. Pittsburgh Steelers (8-5): Pittsburgh now owns a one-game lead over Baltimore. The division will likely be decided Christmas day when the Ravens visit Heinz Field.
4. Houston Texans (7-6): The Texans own the head-to-head tiebreaker over the Titans in the AFC South.
5. Oakland Raiders (10-3): This wild-card spot appears to be locked up, whether it's the Raiders or Chiefs who hold it in the end.
6. Denver Broncos (8-5): Denver owns the tiebreaker over Miami for the final wild-card position. The Broncos' spot is nowhere near secure, however, with their final three games against teams with the three best records in the conference: vs. Patriots, at Chiefs and at Raiders.


In The Hunt …


7. Miami Dolphins (8-5): If the Ravens can finish with a tied record with Miami, they will hold a head-to-head tiebreaker. But even without Ryan Tannehill (sprained knee), the Dolphins could win out. They finish at the Jets and Bills, and then host the Patriots, who could rest their starters if they've already clinched home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
8. Ravens (7-6): A full game behind the Steelers, Baltimore must win Christmas day for the division crown. The Ravens need help from the Broncos and Dolphins in order to win a wild-card spot.

2) Ravens Haven't Shown They're On The Same Level As League's Best Teams

As outside linebacker Terrell Suggs walked off the field and into the tunnel at Gillette Stadium, he and his teammates were showered with a barrage of yelling and booing from Patriots fans.

Suggs is heard in the video below, captured by CSNMidAtlantic.com's Brent Harris, saying: "They better hope they don't see us again."

Suggs: "they better hope they don't see us again"#BalvsNE pic.twitter.com/bEKDPKYLko — Brent Harris (@BrentCSN) December 13, 2016

The only way the Ravens and Patriots would see each other again is if Baltimore finds a way to advance to the postseason. It's a positive sign that Suggs believes his team could take down New England with another shot, but excuse the pundits if they don't agree.

"Between this game and the loss to the Dallas Cowboys, we've learned the 2016 Ravens aren't quite up to the level of the best teams in the league," wrote The Sun's Childs Walker.

"The Ravens have proved they can play with the best," added ESPN's Jamison Hensley. "They just fall short in beating the best."

As several pundits pointed out, the final score Monday night made this game appear much closer than it was in reality.

Some say the Ravens showed perseverance after going down by as much as 20 points to future Hall of Fame quarterback Tom Brady and his top-seeded Patriots to make it a three-point game in the fourth quarter. Others say the Ravens didn't earn the comeback, but rather the Patriots gifted them two touchdowns with back-to-back fumbles on returns, and Baltimore still didn't win.

"The Ravens came back from the dead Monday night, because the Patriots resurrected them," added CBSSports.com's Sean Wagner-McGough.

"Some will view this as a resilient performance because the Ravens rallied from 23-3 down to make it a competitive game," added Walker. "The reality is that until late in the game, the Ravens offense reverted to the erratic, mistake-prone attack we saw over the first 11 weeks of the season. And Tom Brady pretty well carved up a secondary that again had to play without an injured Jimmy Smith."

3) Offense Returns To An Imbalanced, Checkdown-Dependent Attack

Quarterback Joe Flacco and the Ravens offense wanted to prove that their 38-point, near 500-yard day against the Dolphins last week wasn't an aberration.

"Don't let the Ravens' 23 points and 348 total yards fool you," wrote NFL.com's Chris Wesseling. "They needed back-to-back fumbles by punt returner Cyrus Jones and kickoff returner Matthew Slater to set Joe Flacco up on the doorstep of New England's end zone for their only two touchdowns of the game."

"The Ravens were flat on offense, and it has to be discouraging to see how easily the Patriots took them out of their game with the zone," added Zrebiec.

Baltimore didn't have a touchdown drive longer than 22 yards. And outside of those two scores, familiar problems resurfaced on offense.

The Ravens' strategy was to put the ball in Flacco's hands, hoping he'd play as well as he has before in New England. But the Patriots took away the middle of the field with a zone-heavy scheme, forcing him to continually check down to running backs for short dump-offs. Flacco looked uncomfortable at times, and penalties and drops resurfaced.

Despite the struggles in the passing game, the Ravens neglected the rushing attack. In 30 first-half plays, Wesseling says the Ravens ran "an astonishingly low" four times. In the end, Flacco threw 52 times, and the Ravens running backs carried the ball 13 times.

"Although last week's lopsided victory over Miami provided reason to believe the offense was ready to finally ready realize its potential down the stretch, they remained an imbalanced, checkdown-dependent attack Monday night," Wesseling wrote. "Coordinator Marty Mornhinweg seems to have designs on emulating Jim Bob Cooter's success with a short-passing game that functions as a surrogate for the run, but Flacco simply misses too many throws."

If the Ravens do give more attention to the rushing attack, it will be interesting to see who the lead back is. Terrance West, who has had              the starting role since Week 4, only carried the ball twice against the Patriots and added four receptions. He totaled 26 yards.

Meanwhile, fourth-round rookie Kenneth Dixon rushed 11 times and caught eight passes for a total of 81 yards and his first career touchdown.

"The Ravens coaching staff has never fully trusted a hard-charging Terrance West to carry the ground attack this season," wrote Wesseling. "It will be interesting to see if they turn the backfield over to Kenneth Dixon after the rookie's impressive, tackle-breaking performance in the second half. A relentless Dixon refused to go down on first contact, repeatedly carrying tacklers for extra yardage as a runner and receiver."

On a positive note, Kenneth Dixon is going to be fun to watch over the next few seasons. — Brian Bower (@sportguyRSR) December 13, 2016

4) If J. Smith Is Out, Winning Will Be Very Difficult

Ravens top cornerback Jimmy Smith was carted into the locker room after suffering an ankle sprain near the end of the first quarter.

Head Coach John Harbaugh didn't specify how severe the injury was, but David J. Chao, a former NFL team doctor of 17 years, predicted a high ankle sprain based on what he saw on TV.

Oh my. Not good. #Ravens pic.twitter.com/QBl4YSOdWT — Will Cocks (@wheelsee) December 13, 2016

All injuries are specific to the situation and play, but for a comparison, offensive lineman Alex Lewis suffered a high ankle sprain earlier this season and wasn't expected to return for six weeks. He surprised people by returning to practice after four weeks.

Nobody is blaming the Ravens' defensive struggles against the Patriots on the loss of Smith. In fact, safety Eric Weddle took the blame for the back-breaking 79-yard, game-sealing New England score late in the fourth quarter. But it won't be easy to win out without perhaps the team's best defensive weapon.

"Losing cornerback Jimmy Smith to an ankle injury could be [a] devastating blow to the Ravens defense," wrote CSNMidAtlantic.com's Clifton Brown. "Smith is the Ravens' best corner, capable of covering the opponent's best receiver one-on-one.

"It was uncertain how long Smith would be out, but imagine if Smith were still out of the lineup on Christmas against the Steelers. In that scenario, how would the Ravens defend Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown? The answer to that question could be – not well enough."

5) Tom Brady Look Like League MVP vs. Ravens' Top-Ranked Defense

That's not so much a knock on the Ravens defense as it is a compliment to Brady.

Sometimes you just have to give credit where it's due, and Brady threw for an explosive 406 passing yards against the league's No. 1-overall ranked defense.

"Tom Brady was magnificent – again," wrote Brown.

Yes, the Ravens lost Smith and fellow cornerback Jerraud Powers (concussion), so the secondary was short-handed, but so was Brady's receiving corps. Not only was Brady missing the best tight end in football with Rob Gronkowski (back) on injured reserve, but his backup tight end Martellus Bennett (ankle) was banged up and wide receiver Danny Amendola (ankle) was out.

"Relegated to a dink-and-dunk offense without Rob Gronkowski in recent games, the Patriots' attack was expected to face a litmus test against the stout defenses of the Ravens and Broncos over the next two weeks," wrote Wesseling. "They passed the first of those trials with flying colors, providing ample reason to believe this edition of Tom Brady's offense is set up better than any previous version to survive the unstoppable tight end's absence.

"Considering the quality of opponent, this sterling performance rates as Brady's strongest argument yet in a wide-open MVP race that includes Matthew Stafford, Matt Ryan, Aaron Rodgers, Le'Veon Bell and Ezekiel Elliott."

6) Calls For Ravens To Show More Urgency With Clock Ticking

Patience is a virtue, but perhaps the Ravens had a little too much of the virtue late in the game when trying to mount a comeback win.

Down by 10 points with about seven minutes remaining, Baltimore mostly resorted to short dump-offs that got small gains, and not surprisingly "Joe Cool" didn't demonstratively show urgency in getting the unit to the line of scrimmage.

Ultimately, the Ravens only mustered a field goal on a 10-play drive that ate up four minutes and 15 seconds of the game clock. After a failed onside kick attempt, the Patriots managed to kill the final two minutes.

7) Heart Goes Out To Tucker For Broken Streak

Kicker Justin Tucker said he doesn't care that he came up one field goal short of setting a franchise record. He had kicked 35 straight before the Patriots blocked his attempt in the first quarter. Matt Stover still holds the franchise record with 36 consecutive field goals.

While the kicker is more concerned about losing the game, your heart can't help but go out to him for a "miss" that was no fault of his own.

Tucker still went on to convert three other field goals in the loss, including one from 50 yards out.

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