Five thoughts on the Ravens' 34-17 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium:
Ravens Alone Are Responsible For Failure
The Ravens needed help and a win of their own to make the playoffs, and they got the help they needed when Rex Ryan's New York Jets defeated the Miami Dolphins. It should be the ultimate frustration that the Ravens didn't hold up their end of the equation, that they alone are responsible for their failure to make the playoffs for the first time in six years. But how frustrating can it be after a season-ending performance like that left them with an unplayoff-like .500 record? Many of 2013's recurring issues presented themselves one final time – an offense plagued by false starts, red-zone woes, turnovers and a limited running game; and a defense that gave up a big pass play and couldn't get off the field at a key juncture. The Ravens had their chances, grabbed four interceptions and showed heart, rallying from 11 points down to tie in the third quarter. But the Bengals offense, populated with more playmakers, immediately took the game back. The Bengals captured the AFC North and finished three games ahead of the Ravens for a reason. They're the better team this year. As for the Ravens and the playoffs, quarterback Joe Flacco said it all: "We're an 8-8 football team. We don't deserve to be there."
Where Was Pressure On Dalton?
This was a game about pressure – the kind you put on a quarterback. Flacco faced it all day, absorbing a steady drumbeat of hard hits from the Bengals' defensive front, which blitzed him repeatedly, collapsed his pocket and seldom gave him time to sit back and throw. It didn't help that the Ravens were forever in third-and-long. "We gave those guys opportunities to bring pressure," Flacco said. He was battered by the end of this game. Meanwhile, the Ravens barely touched Cincinnati's Andy Dalton. Oddly enough, Dalton still threw four interceptions, several of which were just ill-conceived throws into coverage. But the Ravens didn't convert any of the picks into six points, so the damage was minimal. And otherwise, Dalton had plenty of time to find open receivers. Where were Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil, the Ravens' sack twins? Neither got to Dalton. For that matter, Suggs contributed just one assisted tackle, and Dumervil, playing on a bad ankle, had no stats at all.
Three Game-Changing Plays
I can give you three moments in this game that summed up this Ravens' season of opportunities lost. The first was when they grabbed interceptions on the Bengals' first two possessions but failed to convert either into a touchdown. "Probably the key to the game," Harbaugh said of the inability to jump ahead when given a chance. The second moment was the long touchdown drive the Bengals engineered after the Ravens had tied the game late in the third quarter. "A statement drive," Harbaugh called it. The third key moment was Flacco's first interception early in the fourth quarter. Torrey Smith flashed over the middle on a slant route. The safety bought a fake. Smith had a wide seam to run through if he caught the pass. "I was gone. There was no catching me," he said. A touchdown would have tied the score, but the ball was tipped at the line and intercepted. The Bengals kicked a field goal to take a 10-point lead.
Rough Season For Flacco
By any reckoning, it was a rough season for Flacco, who threw a career-high 22 interceptions and spent the last two games hobbling around on a sprained knee. The offseason is going to be rough, too, as he surely will be saddled with the brunt of the public's blame for his team's failure to make the playoffs. That's life when you're one of the NFL's highest paid players and throw three picks in a must-win finale. But is it fair to dump everything on Flacco? No way. In my opinion, the lack of a running game was the offense's biggest problem in 2013; had it performed like usual, things would have unfolded differently. The line's inability to protect Flacco was also key, as was the inability of Flacco's receivers to consistently gain separation. All those issues were on display to the end Sunday. But having said all that, Flacco was also a key ingredient of the strange brew of issues that left the Ravens so wanting on offense. He took too many risks, lost his long-ball touch, lacked judgment at times. He's the same quarterback who won the Super Bowl, durable, big-armed, clutch. But he needs to do better.
Grit Defined 2013 Ravens, But Wasn't Enough
In a season when their offense underperformed and their defense was more solid than dominating, the Ravens' most consistent quality was their grit. No matter how ugly things got at times, they continually battled, taking most games (Denver and New England games excepted) down to the wire. That's not a shocking revelation, as grit and heart have been defining characteristics under Harbaugh. They exhibited it to the end Sunday with their late comeback. Shoot, just when the Bengals were ready to deliver a knockout blow in the fourth quarter, Jimmy Smith doggedly intercepted a pass in the end zone, keeping the Ravens' faint hopes alive. (Flacco's pick-six quickly took care of that.) But in the end, grit wasn't enough to carry the Ravens where they wanted to go. That's the moral of this game, this season. You need more than grit. You need an offense that zings, like the Ravens had in the 2012 playoffs and the Bengals have this year. You need a defense that can make key stops. Grit alone isn't enough.