Donald Miralle, Getty Images
December 19, 2011
Sunday's loss to San Diego isn't the end of the world, but let's be honest about it. It's impressive that the Ravens are going to the playoffs for the fourth straight year, but they have serious flaws that keep showing up in road games. With home field advantage, it was easy to envision them in the Super Bowl. But now that they'll likely have to go on the road, it would be a surprise to see them make it all the way to Indianapolis.
Nothing about the Ravens no-show against the Chargers feels all that shocking to me. (I predicted it, in fact.) By now, watching Baltimore play this kind of game on the road is about what I would expect from them. This is who they are. They're flawed when they're away from M&T Bank Stadium. When they're playing Rams or the Browns, they're good enough to overcome whatever trace they slip into during road games. But when they face a team that presents any kind of match-up problems, they're in trouble. John Harbaugh likes to say that all his team's road losses have nothing to do with one another, and that each game should be judged on its own merits, and I was willing to entertain that theory for awhile. But I believe confidence plays such a big role in how this team responds to adversity, it's impossible to look each of those games and not see similarities. To not see common threads.
Each time they've lost a road game this year -- to Tennesse, to Jacksonville, to Seattle, and now to San Diego -- we thought (and hoped) it was an anomaly. It seemed like something that could be explained away. The Ravens secondary had a bad day. The offensive coordinator had a bad day. The kick returner had a bad day. For whatever reason, they didn't play "Raven football." They didn't "execute." But here is the reality that dawned on me after the loss to Seattle. The Ravens Nov. 6 victory in Pittsburgh was the anomaly, not the other way around. That was the one game where the other team punched them in the face several times, and it didn't overwhelm them.
What's disappointing about the Ravens letting the No. 1 seed slip from their grasp this year is this: The schedule really did unfold in their favor. Even before the season started, it was clear they were getting a favorable draw. Their toughest non-divisional opponents -- the Jets, Texans>, the 49ers -- all had to come to Baltimore. (Tennessee's resurgence was a bit of a surprise, but they've hardly been an elite team.) Injuries kept breaking the Ravens way as well. They got to face the Colts without Peyton Manning, the Texans without Mario Williams and Andre Johnson, the Steelers without LaMarr Woodley, and the Bengals without A.J. Green. You need a little luck to get a No. 1 seed in the AFC, but the opportunity was there for the Ravens. And they squandered it long before they faced the Chargers.
Why can't this team consistently play great football on the road? I think it's because, in the heat of competition, great teams are usually able to rely on one thing they do really well. Maybe they can run it when they absolutely have to. Or throw the ball even if the defense knows it's coming. Maybe their defense shuts people down with suffocating efficiency. But when adversity strikes, they can lean heavily on their main strength.
What's the Ravens main strength? Prior to Sunday, you probably would have said the defense. But keep in mind, Tennessee showed us early in the year if you get the ball out quickly, you can neutralize the Ravens' pass rush. The Ravens are a good running team, but not a great one. They're can make plays in the passing game, but can't ask Flacco to carry the team. They're good in a lot of areas, but they don't dominate in any one facet of the game. As soon as Phillip Rivers started to carve up Baltimore's secondary Sunday night, I knew they were done. The defense has been the one thing keeping them in road games this year. If the defense has an off night against an elite player, you can pretty much forget about it. Because they can't match teams score for score. Not on the road.
But here is a fascinating truth about the NFL we probably don't consider enough: The best teams in the league, the ones that have been the most consistent, aren't always the once that make it to the Super Bowl. Often, it's just about getting hot at the right time. In 2010, the Packers went 10-6 and crept into the playoffs as a wildcard. In 2008, the Arizona Cardinals made it to the Super Bowl despite going 9-7 during the year. The 2007, the Giants finished second in the NFC East, nearly benched their quarterback at one point, but then rolled through the playoffs and knocked off the previously-undefeated Patriots. The 2005 Steelers were a wild card team that, at one point during the regular season, lost three straight.
Maybe the Ravens could shock everyone the way those teams did. On paper, there is no reason why they couldn't win in places like Denver, New England or Pittsburgh. But they've certainly made it harder on themselves.