CLEVELAND -- Cleveland Browns cornerback Joe Haden was right that these Baltimore Ravens aren't the Ravens of old. You can start with the fact that quarterback Joe Flacco, one of the remaining pieces of last year's championship season, isn't the Flacco of old.
Flacco is getting paid to be an elite quarterback. He obviously isn't playing like one. The disturbing part is he doesn't play with the same confidence he carried in the Ravens' Super Bowl run earlier this year, which is one of the reasons why the Ravens looked lifeless at times in a 24-18 loss at FirstEnergy Stadium and why the defending champions are in a midseason free fall.
While this was the epitome of a total team meltdown, Flacco played a major role in his first loss in 12 meetings with the Browns. He sleepwalked through the game's first 29 minutes. He struggled to throw the ball deep. And he didn't show any killer instinct in the final seconds of the game.
This wasn't just a problem in Cleveland, where he was outplayed by a journeyman quarterback. This has been the case for week after painful week.
"It's obviously frustrating we just haven't been good enough," Flacco said.
The problem is, the Ravens wouldn't be a playoff team if Flacco was slinging the ball all over the field like Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Drew Brees or any other quarterback in the NFL ritzy pay grade. The Ravens are a flawed team in every facet of the game. If you want to single out Flacco because of his $120 million contract, I can give you 120 more reasons why Baltimore has its worst record (3-5) at the midway point in coach John Harbaugh's six seasons.
The offensive line can't protect Flacco, who was sacked a season-worst five times and hit a total of eight times. The running game stalled so much that Flacco ended up as the team's leading rusher (25 yards). The defense couldn't get the other team off the field in the fourth quarter for the third straight game. And special teams are a mess as well, from Tandon Doss losing a punt at the Baltimore 13-yard line to Sam Koch shanking a 25-yard punt in the fourth quarter.
Asked if it's unfair to point the finger squarely at the Super Bowl Most Valuable Player, offensive tackle Eugene Monroe said, "Definitely. Everyone is a part of this."
Even when it has been bad for the Ravens, there have been two assurances with Flacco. They always win after the bye and they always beat the Browns. After watching the Ravens lose for the first time in both instances, it's difficult to have any confidence in the Ravens or Flacco.
This was a time when the Ravens should have had a sense of urgency. With the AFC North-leading Cincinnati Bengals losing Thursday night, the Ravens would've cut their lead to 1½ games heading into Sunday's showdown. Instead, the Ravens produced another lethargic first half, which has been a trademark nearly the entire season.
Flacco started off as rusty as he has been all season, misfiring on 10 of his first 15 passes. He repeatedly threw behind his receivers and missed two big plays to Jacoby Jones and Deonte Thompson in the first quarter. At one point in the game, the Browns' Jason Campbell had two touchdown passes and Flacco had three completions.
This has been a role reversal from the playoffs earlier this year. Flacco had a 113.8 passer rating in the first half during the playoffs and averaged 9.1 yards per attempts.
His worst pass in Sunday's punch-in-the-gut loss, and perhaps the season, was an underthrown deep pass that was intercepted by Haden in the second quarter. The throw fluttered so high in the sky that it looked more like a punt than a pass.
"It was just a terrible ball," said Flacco, who finished 24-of-41 for 250 yards and two touchdowns. "It didn't come out of my hand right or something. It was a really bad ball. I threw it up in the air and it just got caught up there and didn't do anything. It probably wasn't a great decision anyway."
Flacco was so off his game that it looked like he may have been hurt. He even underthrew Torrey Smith on a 46-yard pass that would have been a touchdown on a better pass.
But coach John Harbaugh said Flacco wasn't injured, and Flacco brushed off those suggestions better than he did the Browns' pass rush.
Asked if the hits were taking a toll on him, Flacco said, "I don't think so. Yeah, they hurt a little bit at the time. It is what it is. It's football. I thought I was able to escape the pocket a couple of times and try to make some things happen. They worked some times and they didn't work other times."
There were times when the Browns had clear shots at Flacco. The pocket collapsed almost immediately on third down in the fourth quarter, when Ray Rice missed a block. Flacco was sacked, ending a drive at midfield with the Ravens trailing 21-18.
"Any time you make the quarterback uncomfortable, it changes everything for him," Monroe said. "Even if you have the most poised guy in the world, if you're getting hit or pressured, you might look for that. Joe sits in there and he makes plays when we need him to. If he does get hit, he doesn't give any crap about it. He's a standup guy. We have to do our job to protect him. The better we can do that, the better the passing game will prosper from it."
Flacco got the ball back at his own 20-yard line with 13 seconds remaining. Unlike the last game in Pittsburgh, Flacco wasn't as aggressive. Needing a touchdown, Flacco decided to throw the ball short on his final two passes instead of chucking it deep like he did in the playoff game at Denver.
"The first one, we had the play where we throw the curl to Torrey and we're looking to pitch it all over the place," Flacco said. "On the second one there, I figured the same thing would happen. I figured I could get it to Ray [Rice] and he can make somebody come across the field and start pitching the ball."
Flacco isn't the only high-profile quarterback struggling these days. Matt Ryan, who received more guaranteed money than Flacco this offseason, has a 2-6 record. Two Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks, Eli Manning and Ben Roethlisberger, are a combined 4-12.
The Ravens didn't pay Flacco this offseason based on stats. They spent the money because he's a proven winner. But, halfway through this season, he has been part of the problem, not the solution.
"I think if I was an outsider, I'd be somewhat surprised that we're 3-5 right now," he said. "I wouldn't expect that. But we were out on the field and I know how we played today and I know we weren't good enough."