Losing to the Cincinnati Bengals Sunday was a microcosm of the Ravens season.
On a day where they would have clinched a playoff spot with a win, the issues that have plagued them throughout the year showed up once again and cost them an opportunity to keep their postseason alive.
The offense struggled to move the football, couldn’t score touchdowns in the red zone and committed critical turnovers. The defense carried the team for much of the game and kept the score close by forcing four interceptions, but then the unit faltered during critical moments of the second half.
The miscues were too much for the Ravens to overcome, as they fell to Cincinnati 34-17. The loss dropped the Ravens to 8-8 on the season, meaning they will miss the playoffs for the first time since John Harbaugh and Joe Flacco arrived in Baltimore in 2008.
“It’s a very difficult, disappointing loss because that’s it,” Harbaugh said. “That ends it. That stings.”
Had the Ravens won, they would have been in the postseason because the Dolphins lost to the Jets 20-7. The Ravens have no chance to advance to the postseason, and now the Chargers will be the AFC’s No. 6 seed. The Bengals will go into the playoffs as the division champs with either the AFC’s No. 3 seed.
This is the fifth time in the last 11 seasons that the defending Super Bowl champions have failed to make the playoffs.
“When you have an opportunity to defend something so special that only 12 teams get an opportunity to chase, it hurts,” safety James Ihedigbo said. “We just didn’t play well enough to deserve it.”
A struggling offense was the core problem for the Ravens. The unit scored touchdowns on just one of their five trips inside the red zone.
Flacco, who again played with a brace to protect his injured left knee, was also plagued by turnovers. He was picked off three times, and finished the game 30-of-50 passing for 192 yards and one touchdown. He also spent much of the game under duress, as the Bengals hit him seven times and sacked him twice.
“That’s kind of been the story of our season where we get the ball in position to score, and just not being able to do it,” Flacco said.
The red-zone issues started early, as the defense put the offense in great position early in the first quarter. The Ravens intercepted Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton on Cincinnati’s first two possessions of the game, and the Ravens got just six points out of the turnovers.
“That’s probably the biggest thing,” Harbaugh said. “If we could have got 14 or even 10 there, it would have made a big difference. That was probably the key. When you have some momentum you have a chance to get out in front like that the way we did.”
After the Ravens failed to capitalize on early touchdowns, the Bengals came back and built up a big lead. Dalton hit wide receiver A.J. Green on a 53-yard touchdown pass over the middle of the field where he ran by rookie safety Matt Elam. Cincinnati then added a 16-yard touchdown grab by wide receiver Marvin Jones, and a 39-yard field goal by Mike Nugent.
The game looked like it might be out of reach heading into the locker room at halftime, as the Ravens trailed 17-6 and the offense had been consistently unable to move the football.
But then the defense came up with big plays in the third quarter to give the Ravens a chance to get back in the game. An interception by Lardarius Webb and a shanked Bengals punt gave the Ravens great field position on back-to-back drives. The offense took advantage on those opportunities and tied the game at 17-17 in the third quarter, putting themselves in position to pull off the upset.
Receiver Marlon Brown was able to get two feet in the back of the end zone on an 8-yard catch, and running back Ray Rice showed off his vintage speed and patience with a diving run to the left pylon for a two-point conversion.
But once the Ravens tied the game, the defense that had been rock solid all day struggled to get off the field and allowed a 90-yard touchdown drive. That gave the Bengals a lead that they would hold for good.
“That was a key drive and that turned it for them,” Harbaugh said. “That was a statement drive for them in the sense that they took it down the field and scored in the touchdown. That was the difference in the second half.”
After the long touchdown drive, the Ravens could never catch up despite two more Dalton interceptions. Flacco threw all three of his turnovers in the fourth quarter, including a pick-six to cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick that sealed the game with just over four minutes remaining.
“When you’re [a little bit] off over the course of a game, over the course of 16 games, you’re not going to be consistent enough to win football games, and that’s kind of where we are,” Flacco said.
The loss now sends the Ravens into an unfamiliar predicament of starting the offseason in December. Like every offseason, they have difficult decisions ahead with key free agents like tight end Dennis Pitta, defensive lineman Art Jones and tackles Michael Oher and Eugene Monroe.
They have will have holes to fill and starters to replace, and Harbaugh made it clear that he has higher standards for future seasons.
“We’re not every going to be content with not making the playoffs,” Harbaugh said. “That’s just not something that’s going to be OK with me personally, or any of us.”