Five thoughts on the Ravens' 23-20 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium:
Ravens Lose Grip On AFC Race
Although the Ravens blew a chance to gain a stranglehold on their second straight AFC North title, they were in such good shape in that pennant race before this game that, yes, they could afford a loss. They still lead the Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals by two games with four to play, an enviable position. But this loss was costly in the Ravens' other race – the race to grab one of the top two spots in the AFC playoff field, which translate into a first-round bye and a second-round home game. The Ravens had a grip on the No. 2 slot coming in, but they sank to No. 3 with this defeat, according to the playoff standings at ESPN.com. With Denver and New England both on winning streaks, the Ravens might need to win out to get that No. 2 slot back. A victory over Peyton Manning and the Broncos in two weeks becomes a must. So much for any cushion.
New Mistakes Were The Difference
A few crucial trends helped the Ravens win nine of their first 11 games while not always playing that well. They seldom turned the ball over, averaging less than one giveaway per game, and they had the No. 1 red zone defense in the league. In other words, while some of their fans fretted about the many things they weren't, here's what they were – sound with the ball and savvy on defense. But those trends didn't continue Sunday. The Steelers scored touchdowns on both of their trips into the red zone, and Joe Flacco coughed up a pair of giveaways, a fumble and an interception, both of which led to Pittsburgh scores. Those "new" mistakes combined with the Ravens' eight penalties were the difference between winning and losing on an afternoon when Baltimore again didn't play especially well on either side of the ball.
Ravens Couldn't Take Advantage Of Banged-Up Steelers O-Line
Of the many things the Ravens had going for them entering this game, Ben Roethlisberger's injury certainly was the most important, forcing the Steelers to resort to 37-year-old Charlie Batch under center. But almost as important was the beleaguered state of Pittsburgh's offensive line. Because of injuries, they had a backup starting at left tackle, a backup playing center and a converted center playing guard. The Ravens figured to take full advantage with a pass rush that has gathered steam in the past month. But Pittsburgh's line rose to the occasion, winning that battle. Batch had plenty of time to throw on most plays. In fact, he looked a lot like Roethlisberger, extending plays and holding the ball until his receivers broke open. It wasn't because the game plan called for dialed-back pressure, linebacker Paul Kruger said. "We always plan on putting pressure on the quarterback. Credit to the guys who were protecting him," Kruger said. And the Steelers' line saved its best for last, dominating the Ravens' interior during the long final drive (over six minutes) that ended with the game-winning kick.
Ravens' Killer Instinct Faltered
The Ravens have developed a pretty nifty killer instinct in recent years. Before Sunday, they were 53-22 in the regular season since 2008 and hadn't lost at home in two years. That's called knowing how to win. But this game was definitely one they let get away. They led by 10 points in the second quarter, and even after some mistakes, still led by seven with eight minutes to play. But Pittsburgh made all the big plays down the stretch, as the Ravens' killer instinct faltered. Maybe that's why the Ravens' locker room cleared out so quickly, as numerous players hit the door with their headphones on, not anxious to break down what happened. Shortly after Head Coach John Harbaugh told reporters, "One loss doesn't define any team," safety Bernard Pollard offered this rejoinder: "One loss doesn't define a team, but this is a loss we should have had."
Plenty Of Mea Culpas In Locker Room
There were plenty of mea culpas in the Ravens' locker room. Harbaugh said he blew it when he threw a challenge flag on a Batch incompletion in the third quarter, costing the Ravens a timeout they desperately needed in the final minutes. Kruger said he let his teammates down by committing a personal foul on the final drive that put the Steelers in range for the game-winning kick. Flacco, who was wild high on some throws, said the offense failed to convert some big plays that were there for the taking in the early going. In those and other ways, the Ravens just didn't bring their "A" game Sunday. Anquan Boldin seemed to spend more time than usual asking the officials for flags. A lack of communication between the linebackers and defensive backs left Pittsburgh receivers repeatedly open in the middle of the field. "We didn't play our best ball," safety Ed Reed conceded, and that is certainly true, although to be clear, Pittsburgh did play well in tough circumstances and earned the win.