Five thoughts on the Ravens' 24-23 loss to the New Orleans Saints Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium:
Let's see, the Ravens won it, lost it, saved it and blew it on a play best described as the Baltimore football version of the sun rising in the west, i.e., something that is weird and nonsensical to the point that you can't explain it. Only, of course, this you can explain: Justin Tucker, the best kicker on the planet, simply missed an extra point, which means he is human, which everyone knew but occasionally doubted because he had never missed an extra point and, honestly, not that many field goals since he entered the NFL in 2012. He had made 222 straight extra points and won so many games for the Ravens that I don't have time to tote them up now. Trust me, it's a big number. Now, finally, he has a negative on his ledger to offset all those positives. He missed an extra point that would have tied this game with 24 seconds left, likely forcing overtime. Basically, his luck ran out because when he finally missed one, which was bound to happen, it mattered, coming at the end of a close game, as opposed to, say, late in a blowout. It was the roughest of moments for Tucker and the roughest of ways for the Ravens to lose.
To be clear, there was a lot more to the defeat than Tucker's miss. The Ravens had a 10-point lead late in the third quarter and seemed in command. The Saints were on the road, struggling, backed up. On a third-and-eight at the New Orleans 38, Ravens safety Tony Jefferson blitzed Saints quarterback Drew Brees and started to bring him down for a sack that would have forced a punt. Ballgame? Very close. But as Brees went down, he saw a receiver and hit him for a first down – a brilliant play that changed everything. The Ravens had been in control, but Brees and the Saints took over after his great escape, denting the Baltimore defense for a pair of touchdowns. Basically, the Saints' No. 1-ranked offense lost some early battles but eventually won its war with the Ravens' No. 1-ranked defense – a tough pill to swallow. That's what Hall of Famers like Brees can do, but you have to wonder what happened to the Ravens once the Saints started to assert themselves. Teams with designs on the playoffs aren't supposed to give up leads like that, especially not at home.
The out-of-body-weird ending really wasn't surprising considering how the game unfolded. This looked like a marquee matchup and certainly lived up to expectations, but boy, there were some strange goings-on. The game's initial first down came on a fake punt, which led to a 20-play drive by the Saints that produced, wait for it, no points. There were four replay challenges in the first 18 minutes (too many stoppages for my taste). The Saints went for it five times on fourth down while the Ravens went for it twice, prompting the feeling that everyone was just going for everything. Throw in the usual strange officiating and this was definitely an odd one. In a way, the ending was foretold in the second quarter when Tucker converted a 31-yard field goal for the game's first points. The ball drifted wide and flew over the upright, good by just a hair – a shocking near miss for Tucker. It was an early sign that things might be difficult for him at that end of the field on this windy afternoon. At the time, that seemed like just another piece of weirdness, but it ended up making all the difference.
When judging the Ravens' offensive performance, you have to consider they were playing without two-fifths of their regular O-line, and that rookies Bradley Bozeman and Orlando Brown Jr. made their first NFL starts instead. Against that backdrop, I'd say the unit fared reasonably well, rolling up 25 first downs as it built a lead, watched it disappear and then rolled right down the field to what seemed to be a game-tying touchdown in the final minute. Were there issues? Sure. The running backs combined for less than 50 yards on the ground. Willie Snead IV and Hayden Hurst muffed what would have been huge late catches. But the line gave Joe Flacco time to throw (he was only sacked once) and in the end he passed for 279 yards and two touchdowns without an interception. Those stats usually produce a win. As for Bozeman and Brown, Ravens Head Coach John Harbaugh said he thought they held up well.
Short takes – After the worst moment of his career, Tucker came up huge. Plenty of players duck reporters' questions when things go wrong, but Tucker came straight to the podium, looked everyone in the eye and answered questions until none were left. Off that performance, he could teach a class in how to be accountable. That response usually bodes well for what lies ahead, I've found … Harbaugh said he thought about going for a two-point conversion to win the game before Tucker's miss, but decided against it. That was the right call. Go to overtime and take your chances … The Ravens also played without cornerback Marlon Humphrey, who was out with a hamstring injury. They missed him. Jimmy Smith missed a key sack on a blitz and didn't have one of his tighter coverage games … The Ravens were 15-2 coming in when Flacco threw at least two touchdown passes and no picks at home. Now they're 15-3.
Check out the best action shots from Sunday's Week 7 game against the New Orleans Saints.