Five thoughts on the Ravens' 20-19 loss to the Los Angeles Rams Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium:
Great effort, close loss – yup, the 2021 season in a nutshell. Playing with a depleted lineup and their backup quarterback, the Ravens exuded purpose and intensity against a legitimate Super Bowl contender. But on the brink of a key win, needing just one or two plays to go their way, they were undone by their offense's inability to finish drives and their defense's tendency to give way late – yearlong thorns in their side. It's their third one-point loss and fourth by two or fewer points since the start of December. "End of the day, we've got to close games," cornerback Tavon Young said. Losers of five straight games for the first time under Head Coach John Harbaugh, the Ravens have gone from holding the top seed in the AFC playoff race to having a long-shot odds of even making the playoffs; even if they beat the Pittsburgh Steelers in their season finale next week, they're going to need a lot of help. The story would be vastly different if they'd made the play or two they needed to win this game, which they largely dominated as solid underdogs. But the narrowness of the defeat doesn't lessen its sting. "We don't do this for moral victories," tight end Mark Andrews said.
In the end, the difference was how the offenses fared in the red zone. The Rams went 3-for-4; almost every time they got close to the end zone, they scored a touchdown. The Ravens, meanwhile, went 0-for-2, settling for field goals both times they were inside the Rams' 20. The second of their trips will come under scrutiny, as it should. Holding a two-point lead with some 12 minutes left, the Ravens began a possession at their 25 and drove right down the field. Devonta Freeman ran for 32 yards. Tyler Huntley completed a pass to Marquise Brown for 11. Latavius Murray's six straight carries moved the ball to the Los Angeles five. A touchdown probably wins the game. But with all the momentum on their side, the Ravens blinked. A delay-of-game penalty, inexplicable in this situation, set them back. Huntley was sacked. Settling for a field goal, the Ravens knew they had left the door open for the Rams to win with one score. "I knew it was big," Andrews said. But it wasn't the first time in this season that the Ravens' inability to execute inside the five has caused them heartache. You probably recall the failed two-point conversions that proved decisive in several prior defeats.
Even though it moved the chains and dominated the clock, the Ravens' offense never put the ball in the end zone, which meant the defense had to step up and play well if the Ravens were going to have a chance. And the defense did play well enough to win, at least for most of the day. Coming off an embarrassing performance in Cincinnati, the unit had multiple key contributors back from various injuries and the Reserve/COVID-19 list and clearly was inspired to demonstrate that whipping was a fluke. Chuck Clark set the tone with his electrifying pick-6 in the first quarter, then followed that up with another interception. The Rams made some plays, but Tyus Bowser forced a key fumble and it felt like a Throwback Sunday with the Ravens holding a 16-7 lead early in the fourth quarter. But it turned out the throwback was to earlier games this season in which the defense faltered late. On their final two possessions, the Rams drove 55 and 75 yards to touchdowns and stole a game in which they never led until the final minute. None of it would have mattered if the Ravens had made a stop on a fourth-and-5 play at their 12 on the final drive, but Odell Beckham Jr. held on to a high pass from Matthew Stafford just beyond the sticks. "I had good coverage. He made a good catch," Young said. On such small plays can entire seasons turn.
The teams in the running for the top seed in the NFC are going to remember Tyler Huntley. Playing for Lamar Jackson, the Ravens' backup quarterback torched the Green Bay Packers for four total touchdowns (two running, two passing) two weeks ago. Then he gave the Rams fits Sunday, rushing for 54 yards and passing for 197 on 20 completions out of 32 attempts. If you recall, the Ravens' offense was stuck in the mud before Jackson went down with an ankle injury in Cleveland on Dec. 6; it has moved the ball much more consistently with Huntley making quick decisions, using his legs to make plays, and moving the chains with short-route completions. If someone had told me before Sunday that the Ravens would move the ball 91, 59, 52 and 51 yards on scoring drives and hold the ball overall for seven minutes more than the Rams, I would have said that's a win. (Especially with them also winning the turnover battle and committing just four penalties.) But in the end, the game was just another chapter in Huntley's education. The title of the chapter? "Situational Football is Important." Huntley's offense went 4-for-14 on third downs and 0-for-2 in the red zone. "We control the whole game. We've got to stop hurting ourselves," Huntley said.
Short takes: Talk about a group effort. As Ravens Defensive Coordinator Wink Martindale juggled personnel all day to match up with the Rams' starry offense, 16 different Baltimore players registered at least one solo tackle … Passing the late Michael Jackson with another strong outing (six catches for 89 yards) Andrews now holds the Ravens' record for receiving yardage in a season. It was nice to hear him say it's a big deal, because it is. And it's also pretty darn amazing that a tight end now owns that record … Asked if he saw any positives in the latest close defeat with a depleted lineup, Clark said, "The positive is we've got a fighting team." No doubt about that … In another example of this game summing up the season, center Bradley Bozeman, who hadn't missed a start in three years, fell ill at the last minute and didn't play. Another subtraction.