Flawed Ravens scramble to remain in playoff hunt
The Baltimore Ravens remain in the AFC playoff picture despite several significant flaws, most of which were exposed in their latest and most telling fourth-quarter collapse of the season.
Baltimore blew a 21-point lead in the second half against the Houston Texans on Monday night before Josh Wilson's 12-yard interception return for a touchdown in overtime secured a breathtaking 34-28 victory.
With three weeks left, Baltimore (9-4) is a game behind Pittsburgh in the AFC North and appears on course to earn at least a wild-card berth and a third straight trip to the postseason.
''We've got nine wins now,'' coach John Harbaugh said. ''We move forward from here.''
In the weeks ahead, the Ravens will seek to correct their flaws instead of hoping to survive in spite of them.
''As long as we're winning football games, we'll be happy,'' quarterback Joe Flacco said. ''We're going to work on things to get better. But we're a 9-4 football team right now and we're feeling pretty good about ourselves.''
Before hosting the defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints on Sunday, the Ravens must correct several imperfections that could become bigger issues in the weeks ahead.
Wilson's heroics made up for a miserable second half that exposed weaknesses in an offense without an identity and a defense desperately trying to maintain a rugged reputation built over the past decade.
After a 103-yard kickoff return by David Reed gave Baltimore a 28-7 lead at the start of the third quarter, the Ravens made only five first downs the rest of the way. The offense did not score after halftime, Flacco was sacked five times overall and the running game averaged only 2.6 yards per carry despite Harbaugh's assertion days earlier that Baltimore must run to win.
The esteemed Ravens defense usually has a way of making up for the shortcomings of the offense. But against Houston, Ray Lewis and Co. allowed drives of 70, 42, 99 and 95 yards in the second half. Matt Schaub threw for 393 yards, Arian Foster ran for 100 yards and the Texans finished with a whopping 489 yards in offense.
Most importantly, Baltimore lost a fourth-quarter lead for the eighth time this season and second week in a row. The Ravens are 4-4 in those games.
Fading in the fourth quarter is hardly a trait associated with playoff success. Sooner or later, Baltimore's offense will have to get in sync and the defense must return to form.
''We didn't have many possessions in the second half, but when we did we didn't extend those drives and really make anything of them,'' Flacco said. ''You've got to make sure you do a good job of converting first downs and putting as many points on the board as you can, and we didn't.''
It was the 10th game this season for Baltimore decided by seven points or fewer. The Ravens have won six of them.
''One thing I know is that we have been battling through adversity all year,'' running back Ray Rice said. ''We've always had these tough games all year and it's great to see us squeak it out.''
Then again, the Ravens could have hardly expected another tight game after taking a 28-7 lead.
''When you're up like that, we don't want the game to have to come down to the fourth quarter,'' Flacco said. ''We'd like to play good football for 3 1/2 quarters and let our offensive line win a game for us at the end. It just hasn't happened.''
And the defense? The Ravens couldn't rush in enough fresh bodies to chase down Schaub in the fourth quarter, when the Texans used a 15-0 push to force overtime.
Lewis has been a part of many better defensive units. He's also been a member of teams that were out of the playoff hunt at this time of year.
''I keep telling these guys, I've been on the No. 1 defense and all of this stuff,'' Lewis said. ''I don't care about stats. Keep giving me Ws and let's see what we do in the playoffs.''