Print and Go Back ESPN.com: AFC North [Print without images]

Saturday, December 24, 2011
Ravens failing to hit stride on playoff run

By Jamison Hensley

Ray Lewis
Veteran linebacker Ray Lewis says now is the time when the Ravens need to start peaking.
BALTIMORE — The Baltimore Ravens are one win away from achieving all of their regular-season goals: the AFC North title, a home playoff game and a first-round bye.

These are the rewards given to the best teams in the AFC. But, for the past two games, the Ravens are nowhere close to looking like the elite of the AFC.

Last Sunday night, the Ravens were blown out by the San Diego Chargers and quarterback Philip Rivers. On Saturday, Baltimore needed a Cleveland Browns rookie defensive lineman to jump offside to lock up a much-needed 20-14 win against Cleveland.

This isn't exactly the 2000 Ravens. This doesn't even resemble the Ravens from last month when they were thumping the San Francisco 49ers and Cincinnati Bengals.

This is the time when teams are supposed to be clicking heading into the playoffs. The Ravens are certainly the AFC's scariest team — but it's not what you think. The dropped passes on offense, breakdowns on defense and poor coverage on special teams have combined for a frightening finish to the season.

The Ravens won't make the Super Bowl by playing this way. Championship teams finish off games and opponents. The reason the Ravens won Saturday is the Browns handed them the game with penalties and poor play calling.

The Ravens' goal next weekend shouldn't just be to win the division title. It should be to earn it.

"Sometimes we say it's not perfect and it's not pretty, and it was not," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "But in this league and this environment against this football team, the Cleveland Browns — they made it tough on a lot of people this year -- our guys found a way to win the game at the end and that's what counts."

The alarming part is the Ravens (11-4) nearly found ways to lose to the Browns (4-11), too.

Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco completed two passes to wide receivers. That's not a good sign in the team's first game without Anquan Boldin, who will miss at least the last two games of the regular season.

A week after not being able to stop the pass, the Ravens' defense had trouble stopping the run, getting blown off the ball. The Browns' Peyton Hillis ran for 112 yards, his first 100-yard game of the season.

And the Ravens' special teams had another lapse. Josh Cribbs' 84-yard punt return for a score in the third quarter is the third touchdown allowed by Baltimore's coverage teams. It's the first time the Ravens have given up multiple touchdowns off returns since 2002.

This isn't to say the Ravens are falling apart. The Ravens could end up being the team to beat in the AFC. All of their mistakes are fixable. The key, however, is they need to fix them quickly.

"San Diego, we just kind of got hit. They got us," Flacco said. "It happens sometimes. In this game, I don't think we didn't play well. I just think we had a couple of plays where we could have done the simple thing better and we would have been perfect. I see where you're coming from just because of the way the game looked today, but I don't think we didn't play well."

The Ravens looked like they were hitting their stride in the first half, rolling to a 17-0 halftime lead. In the second half, tight end Ed Dickson had two drops (including one on third down) and rookie receiver Torrey Smith couldn't hold onto a third-down throw.

"I was a little disappointed with some of the drops," Harbaugh said. "It wouldn't have been a game if we'd have converted on third down."

To be honest, there's not a dominant team in the AFC this season or this month. The Ravens aren't the only AFC playoff team with questions surrounding them.

The New England Patriots had to rally from 17-0 deficit in the second half after an early letdown against the Miami Dolphins. The Pittsburgh Steelers looked equally awful in San Francisco before stomping the St. Louis Rams. And the Houston Texans have major concerns after losing two in a row,  including one to the previously one-win Colts.

The difference is those teams have excuses for struggling. New England has one of the NFL's worst defenses, and the Steelers and Texans are dealing with the injury effect at quarterback.

The Ravens don't have such glaring weaknesses. Flacco and running back Ray Rice are playoff veterans who should be reaching the primes of their careers. The Baltimore defense has been dominant for most of the season with sacks and turnovers.

But the Ravens have a warning: Don't write them off just yet.

"I think the perfect time to hit on all cylinders is to get in the playoffs," linebacker Ray Lewis said. "The thing that we did now is put ourselves in a great position for the fourth year in a row, being back in the playoffs. Now, it's up to us to go out and finish what we're trying to finish, and that's when you start clicking. It's one thing to play these great games during the year and whatever, but for us now, it's about playing those great games in the playoffs. And for us, that's the next step for us."

The next step is the regular-season finale at Cincinnati, where the game is important for both teams.

The Ravens know a win gives them a first-round bye and a home game, which could set up a favorable road. The Bengals know a win clinches a playoff spot.

"It’s going to be a war, man," Ravens linebacker Jarret Johnson said. "They’re fighting for their life. We’re fighting for the division. So, it's going to be a playoff game."