Five thoughts on the Ravens' 36-21 loss to the Carolina Panthers Sunday at Bank of America Stadium:
The Ravens have looked like serious playoff contenders through most of the first half of the 2018 season, but after this blowout, their second straight defeat and third in four weeks, they find themselves at a crossroads. Here are the cold, hard facts: They're a .500 team. They're in third place in their four-team division. Their margin for error is pretty much gone. They'd better beat the Pittsburgh Steelers next week at M&T Bank Stadium or they'll be reduced to rooting for long-odds playoff scenarios. They certainly can't offer another reprise of this subpar outing, which won't get them anywhere close to where they want to go. "We got our butts kicked," quarterback Joe Flacco said. Some of the credit goes to Carolina, which played a physical, smart, error-free game, and looks like a team going places. The Ravens have believed they're also going places, but the Panthers were tougher up front and markedly better on both sides of the ball. "It's disappointing. We'll see what we're made of," Flacco said. Sure enough, while there's time to turn things around and plenty to play for with eight games left, look-in-the-mirror time has arrived.
The Ravens' defense came in with gaudy statistics and a reputation for being the best in the league. Let's just say the Panthers weren't buying. They had all sorts of answers for Baltimore's trademark aggressiveness, starting with the strong play of their offensive line, which handled Ravens Defensive Coordinator Don (Wink) Martindale's blitzes as adeptly as any team all season. The Ravens had zero sacks and never really pressured Carolina quarterback Cam Newton, whose ball-handling and misdirection feints continually caused confusion. Meanwhile, his receivers, especially rookie wideout D.J. Moore and tight end Greg Olsen, repeatedly found open space in a Baltimore secondary that often looked a step slow. Put simply, that defense regarded as the league's best absorbed a thorough humbling, allowing touchdown drives of 99 and 85 yards – the latter after the Ravens had scored a third-quarter touchdown that raised the possibility, however slim, of a late comeback. Nope, not happening.
The Ravens' offense couldn't have started better, driving 75 yards to a touchdown on the game's first possession. After that, though, the offense's performance disintegrated into a succession of missed blocks, turnovers, drops and errant throws. It's easy to pin the bulk of the blame on the line, which was down two starters and going with its third left guard (Hroniss Grasu) in three weeks. Flacco was sacked twice, hit seven times and under more pressure than usual, which didn't help his effectiveness. But blaming the line isn't fair because there were mistakes all over, including multiple drops of catchable balls and a pair of interceptions tossed by Flacco, whose low (56.8) passer rating was a throwback to his recent forgettable seasons. Ravens Head Coach John Harbaugh said Carolina blitzed more and played more man-to-man coverage than expected, but still, there were a handful of plays that could have been made. The offense was supposedly better than this.
When Harbaugh told the media that the lopsided defeat "surprised" him, he meant generally, overall, etc. (He certainly took the fall, saying, "We just weren't there. There's nothing we did well. That starts with me.") But one aspect of the game seemed especially surprising to the Ravens: The fact that the Panthers were the more physical team. Playing tough supposedly is what the Ravens do, what they bring every week regardless if they're otherwise sharp or not. But the Panthers had the advantage this time, and not just up front: Carolina's secondary muscled the Ravens' receivers, causing big problems in the passing game. Flacco alluded to it, pointing out that the Ravens were trying to come back against a team "playing more physical than you." Give some credit to Carolina, but that's an attack on the Ravens' core self-image, and an issue they must fix immediately with a game against the Steelers up next.
Short takes: Nice postgame perspective from Eric Weddle: "You can't just chalk it up to being 'one bad game.' It's serious. We can't play like that." … The Panthers took the lead for good in the second quarter after Alex Collins' third fumble of the season. But it's hard to fault Collins. The Panthers' Kyle Love went unblocked and slammed into him just as he took the handoff … Overall, the Ravens lost the turnover battle, 3-0. "Those are killers," Harbaugh said. … With zero sacks Sunday, the defense has just one in the past two games after piling up 11 in Tennessee … The Ravens had a 7-0 lead and could have maintained the early momentum longer if not for an illegal shift penalty that nullified a daring fake punt that produced a first down in the first quarter. But given how the game went from there, it's hard to believe that mistake changed the outcome … If there was one positive, it's that tackle Ronnie Stanley wasn't lost for the season when Flacco rolled onto him after being knocked down, causing what initially looked like a major injury. Stanley limped off the field but came back.
Check out the best images from Sunday's Week 8 game in Carolina.