Five thoughts on the Ravens' 29-26 win over the San Diego Chargers Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium:
Even On Happy Day, Ravens Are Depressed
Sorry to go all literary on you, but a line from Charles Dickens seems especially appropriate: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times." Ordinarily, a win that improves your record to 2-6 shouldn't qualify as the "best" of anything, but the Ravens were emotional in victory. They've stayed together and continued to compete and play hard while their season of high hopes has been derailed by mistakes and last-minute losses, and they clearly felt good about that after finally turning the tables and winning a close one. "I don't think I've been as proud as I am now to be associated with a group," said kicker Justin Tucker, who booted the game winner as time expired. But this is the kind of year it is: even on a happy day, the players and coaches left the stadium depressed after learning the devastating news that receiver Steve Smith Sr. is done for the year with a torn Achilles. Everyone swallowed hard and sounded the next-man-up chorus, but let's be honest: Smith's playmaking and fiery leadership can't be replaced.
Special Teams Unit Gets Game Ball**
It was fitting that Head Coach John Harbaugh awarded the game ball to the special teams and cited them as "the difference in the game," for indeed, they did provide the Ravens' razor-thin margin of victory in yet another back-and-forth affair that could have gone either way. For the second straight week, Asa Jackson blocked a kick, this one an extra point after a San Diego touchdown just before halftime. That missing point loomed huge in the final minutes. Then, with the Ravens trailing and in trouble in the fourth quarter, punter Sam Koch changed everything with a 62-yard punt that died on the San Diego 3. The backed-up Chargers barely avoided a safety before punting, and the Ravens only had to drive 38 yards for a touchdown that put them ahead with four minutes, 34 seconds to play. Then Tucker finished off his perfect day (5-for-5 on field goal attempts) with a buzzer beater that everyone knew was going through the uprights. The Ravens' tough season has obscured the fact that their special teams are playing terrific football.
Finally, Another Team Makes The Mistakes
The Ravens have often beaten themselves with penalties, turnovers and other mistakes and lapses in 2015, but they were the happy recipients of that brand of good fortune this time. They didn't lose a turnover, and two penalties crushed the Chargers in the final minutes. Trailing by three points, San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers had his offense on the move with three minutes to play. A go-ahead touchdown loomed when Rivers completed a pass to receiver Malcom Floyd that converted a third-and-9 into a first down in the red zone. But a false start penalty nullified the play, and after the Chargers failed to convert on third-and-14, they settled for a field goal that tied the game, leaving the door open for the Ravens to win. Then, with the Ravens in a third-and-19 hole on their final drive, a pass interference call on San Diego cornerback Steve Williams gave the Ravens a new set of downs at the Charger 22, effectively deciding the game. Ravens receiver Kamar Aiken drew the key flag, an element the Ravens have lacked this year. The call was correct. Finally, the breaks went their way.
Ravens Defense Actually Got Key Stops**
The Chargers' top-ranked passing offense lived up to billing, with Rivers throwing for 301 yards and three touchdowns – no shock against Baltimore's struggling pass defense, ranked No. 29 in the league. But with one big exception, the Ravens made enough plays to keep the Chargers out of the end zone in the second half. The one exception was a doozy, a 70-yard touchdown pass from Rivers to Floyd that gave the Chargers a 23-16 lead late in the third quarter. But otherwise, the Ravens' maligned defense actually did a nice job of getting off the field with the game on the line, making stops on four of the last five third-down situations it faced. The players on the unit said a fiery halftime speech by Defensive Coordinator Dean Pees got their attention. "He challenges us every week, but this time he was yelling," cornerback Jimmy Smith said.
Supporting Cast Stepped Up In Smith's Absence
Steve Smith Sr. was having another big day, with five receptions for 82 yards, before he went down in the third quarter. He pointed to his Achilles as he lay on the ground, and draped a towel over his head as he was carried off the field. It didn't take an expert to grasp that something very bad had just happened. The crowd went silent. Smith's receiving total for the season just about matches those of the Ravens' other receivers combined. It's hard to imagine them having a productive passing game without him. But the final minutes of this game went against that rationale. It was as if the rest of the passing game came alive after seeing Smith go out. Quarterback Joe Flacco completed seven of 10 attempts for 89 yards in the remaining minutes. With the game on the line, Aiken made five catches and drew a huge penalty. Jeremy Ross and Chris Givens also made big catches. It was impressive. Smith's injury leaves a massive hole, but his supporting cast stepped up big time Sunday.