Flat Ravens Flattened By Broncos, But Clinch Playoffs
RARE TWO-GAME HOME LOSING STREAK; DIVISION LEAD CUT TO ONE
By Joe Platania
(Look for Ravens Report's extensive "Leftovers," our usual postgame notebook, late Sunday night or early Monday morning.)
BALTIMORE -- Leading up to this game, many observers wondered whether Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning would rip the heart right out of the reeling Ravens.
He didn't have to, for Baltimore's struggling football team has been doing that to itself all month.
Thanks to the Broncos' 34-17 win Sunday against the seemingly uninspired Ravens (9-5) -- a score hardly indicative of how one-sided this game was -- Baltimore has now lost three straight games for the first time since 2009 (and the third time under John Harbaugh), and three consecutive December contests for the first time in five years.
Even worse, the banged-up Ravens' flat effort doomed them to a second straight home loss -- the first time that has happened during the Harbaugh era, ending a league-high 39-game streak since the last such streak -- before a crowd of 71,317 fans, some of whom made their way toward the exits as early as the midway point of the third quarter.
Were it not for 31- and 61-yard fourth-quarter touchdown catches by tight end Dennis Pitta (125 yards, seven catches, two touchdowns), the game, which was 31-3 at one point, could have ended up as the worst home loss in Ravens history.
As it was, the 17-point defeat margin was the worst home loss under Harbaugh, who took his usual team-centric approach afterward.
"This is our loss," he said. "No less than the [other] losses, they were our losses. We didn't get off to a very fast start and we couldn't get anything going until late. Our guys understand that.
"But our goals are still in front of us. Our first goal, winning the division, is still in front of us. The ultimate goal is still available to us."
It might be available, but it just got more expensive as far as a division title is concerned.
(UPDATED: 8:10 p.m. ... The Ravens did clinch their fifth consecutive postseason berth and ninth during the last 13 years when the Pittsburgh Steelers fell to 7-7 with a 27-24 overtime loss in Dallas.)
With Cincinnati's win at Philadelphia on Thursday night, Baltimore was kept from clinching the AFC North division and getting its 150th franchise regular-season win for a third straight week.
The loss also shaved the Ravens' division lead against the Bengals to one game; the two teams meet in Cincinnati during Week 17. The defeat also made ascension to the second seed and acquiring a first-round playoff bye -- a luxury the Ravens have had only twice during franchise history, in 2006 and 2011 -- nearly impossible.
Speaking of streaks, the AFC West-leading Broncos (11-3) found the going relatively easy in recording their league-best ninth consecutive win and first-ever triumph in Baltimore after five straight losses.
It was mainly because of Manning (17-for-28, 204 yards, touchdown, two sacks, 94.9 rating), who recorded his ninth consecutive win against the Ravens, six of them in Charm City.
"He's a great player, regardless of what team he's with," Broncos head coach John Fox said of Manning. "I'm glad he's on our team. But again, he's a tremendous competitor and a great player in this league and thank God he's with the Denver Broncos."
The Ravens' problems came on both sides of the ball.
An offense directed by newly promoted coordinator Jim Caldwell -- working upstairs in the coaching booth -- gained 278 net yards (the third-lowest total of the season) and had 21 minutes of possession against a Broncos defense coordinated by ex-Ravens linebackers coach Jack Del Rio.
Meanwhile, the force that is Manning wore eventually down a Ravens defense that tried to feed off another against-the-odds comeback by linebacker Terrell Suggs (torn biceps).
As for Ravens counterpart Joe Flacco (20-for-40, 254 yards, two touchdowns, one interception, three sacks, 76.5 rating), he didn't have nearly the amount of time Manning had to throw the ball, resulting in yet another afternoon of stalled offensive possessions and plenty of vocal fan discontent. Yet, Flacco refused to blame Caldwell or the coaching change itself for the problems.
"We just weren't doing the simple things right early on," said Flacco, who recorded his 100th career touchdown pass during the game. "We still had an opportunity to put points on the board. We just have to keep our eyes forward and look ahead. In this league, it's 'What have you done for us lately?' "
Defensively, the team's injury problems continued to eat away at what little depth the team had left, leaving a squad on the field that seemed either too young or too inexperienced. While Suggs did manage to play, Jameel McClain, Dannell Ellerbe and Bernard Pollard were all declared inactive with their various injuries. The likes of inside linebacker Josh Bynes (team-high 13 tackles), safety James Ihedigbo and others are all Baltimore has left.
BRONCOS PUT IT AWAY
The Ravens' first-half lethargy seemed cured by a 50-yard Jacoby Jones kickoff return and a sharp Flacco pass over the middle to Tandon Doss (who suffered a twisted ankle Sunday) and two Rice touches -- one run, one pass -- which put the ball on the Broncos' 27.
A left-flat pass to Anthony Allen slipped through the hands of the little-used backup before a high pass to Torrey Smith (14 yards, one catch) -- covered by Champ Bailey on the play -- resulted in Smith's backside landing out of bounds at the Broncos' 4.
A Ravens replay challenge was denied, burning a timeout early during the second half and forcing a Justin Tucker 45-yard field goal, which at least got the Ravens on the board, preventing their first home shutout in 10 years. But Smith and second-string running back Bernard Pierce had to leave the game later with concussions.
The team's bad luck continued when LaQuan Williams couldn't quite pounce on a fumble on the subsequent kickoff return, giving the ball back to Manning and a Broncos offense that had done just enough to forge a big lead, yet not in devastating fashion ... at least not to that point.
Running back Knowshon Moreno (118 yards, 22 carries, touchdown) loosened up the Ravens' defense with several pounding runs toward midfield before Manning sent wideout Eric Decker (133 yards, eight catches, touchdown) on a stutter-and-go up the left sideline against Cary Williams.
Decker easily beat Williams, caught the pass near the Ravens' 10 and walked into the end zone to complete the 51-yard touchdown pass and a five-play, 83-yard drive.
The Broncos had answered a field goal with a touchdown and held their biggest lead to that point, 24-3, forcing Ravens safety Ed Reed to slam his helmet to the ground in frustration near the team bench.
Reed had further reason to be upset when tight end Joel Dreessen beat him up the seam to make a catch at the Ravens' 6 after a good punt return set the Broncos up at the Baltimore 39.
Two plays later, Moreno scored untouched over the right side to make the score 31-3 and basically ice the game away, if it hadn't been already. If the Ravens had lost by 28 or more, it would have broken the record for biggest home defeat margin. The previous record was 27 during a 35-8 national-TV loss to Kansas City in 1999.
No matter the numerology, an argument could be made in hindsight the game was over shortly after it began.
The game started with promise for the Ravens, as they forced Manning and the high-powered Broncos offense -- fifth in the league in third-down conversion percentage -- into a three-and-out on its opening drive.
A deep seam pass for Demaryius Thomas (13 yards, four catches), one of the league's leading receives, was well-covered. On third down, backup inside linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo rushed off the edge and forced a short completion that was far from the first-down marker. Not only that, Jacoby Jones' (51 yards, three catches) 10-yard punt return gave the Ravens the early field-position edge at their own 45.
But the Ravens' good early fortune went sour quickly as a sleepy, flat first-half performance -- complete with five straight three-and-outs -- was about to unfold.
On third-and-1 from the Broncos' 46, a Flacco sneak resulted in former Baltimore trenchman Justin Bannan stripping him. Free safety Rahim Moore fell on the ball at the Broncos' 47, putting a dent in the Ravens' plus-12 turnover ratio, tied for the league's fifth best. It was plus-10 when the day was over.
From there, Denver went to work.
Ronnie Hillman, the league's youngest player at 21, gained 6 yards around right end for a first down at the Baltimore 42 before a play-action pass to Decker gained 9 more yards. Hillman got the first down with a short plunge.
From there, two more passes to Thomas went incomplete, an end-zone pass was overthrown and a right-flat throw was dropped, setting up third-and-10. But ex-Ravens receiver Brandon Stokley beat Graham and Reed to the sideline and leaped for a pass at the 17 for another first down.
Thomas finally got the ball in his hands on a right-side bubble screen, but the play was stopped for no gain. But on third-and-7, Thomas managed to catch a pass in traffic over the middle to set up Matt Prater's 27-yard field goal midway through the first quarter.
It didn't help the Ravens' cause when Williams' illegal block wiped out a Jones kick return past the 30, moving the ball back to the 6. A short run by Ray Rice (38 yards, 12 rushes; 3 yards, three catches) and a hurried incompletion set up third-and-8 from the 8, when, facing a three-man rush, Flacco airmailed a high pass to Doss to quickly end the possession.
The ramifications of the Flacco fumble were still being felt when Sam Koch's ensuing punt was fielded at the Broncos' 48, giving Denver another series start in great position. But despite a three-and-out, the Ravens were still backed up at their own 14 after the punt and could gain just 9 yards before giving up the ball.
To that point, Baltimore had no first downs and only 19 total yards during just nine snaps through the game's first 12 minutes. But despite such inefficiency, Manning was having trouble moving the Broncos after their initial scoring drive, completing just eight of his first 14 passes.
FROM BAD TO WORSE
Toward the end of the first quarter, Paul Kruger batted down a Manning pass at the line of scrimmage. It came during the same series during which Pernell McPhee sacked Manning on third down back at the Denver 25 to at least get a semblance of field position back for Baltimore.
But the Broncos had the Ravens' offense well-scouted, overloading Flacco's right side on third down and knocking him to the ground when he threw wildly to the left.
Then, with Suggs off for an extended period after playing 15 of Denver's first 17 snaps, Manning seemed to get his team in a rhythm.
First, Moreno -- the team's leading rusher with Willis McGahee hurt and out for the year (knee), despite having less than 300 yards for the season -- hurdled Reed on a 20-yard run to the Broncos' 42.
From there, Decker beat Jimmy Smith -- playing for the first time in five games since sports hernia surgery -- to the sideline for 14 more yards to the Ravens' 41. Moreno then went up the middle on a trap play for 9 yards before the Broncos' no-huddle really got going on a drive that lasted 11 plays and traverse 78 yards.
But Williams -- one of only two Raven defenders left that has started every game, the other being Reed -- tipped away an end-zone pass for Thomas before Moreno bulled up the middle to the Ravens' 20, setting up a third-and-1 that Moreno easily converted.
On second-and-7 from the 15, Decker beat Smith to the end-zone pylon and touched the orange marker with the ball, getting a touchdown call from the official at the point of the catch. But replay determined that Decker's foot was out of bounds a half-yard short of the goal line.
That didn't help the Ravens' cause much, especially when Manning deftly handed off on the next play to fullback Jacob Hester for a 1-yard touchdown and a 10-0 Broncos lead barely three minutes into the second quarter.
As if the Ravens' early flat effort wasn't discouraging enough, they had allowed Hester's second career touchdown and first in four years. Offensively, passes to Doss and Anquan Boldin were not even close -- a Ravens wide receiver didn't catch a pass until after the two-minute warning -- and when Pitta dropped an open third-down pass near midfield, another three-and-out resulted.
To that point, Denver had held the ball for 30 of the game's first 45 offensive snaps and 12 of the first 18 game-clock minutes. Those numbers were even more staggering considering the Broncos' four three-and-out series during the first half, which at that point tied a 2012 single-game high for the red-hot AFC West Division champions.
After 23 minutes, Pierce's left-end run gained 14 yards and gave the Ravens their initial first down of the game. But a Matt Birk holding call wiped out another good gain up the middle by Pierce, a rookie from Temple. Another Pitta drop ended the drive with the home team still having gained just 44 yards on 21 plays with one first down and no third-down conversions to that point.
Jones then gave the crowd a spark by nearly doubling his team's output with a leaping 43-yard catch over cornerback Tony Carter at the Broncos' 34. Two plays later, Rice bulled up the middle for 11 yards to the 20 before Smith got open at the 11 and ran after the catch to the 4.
But Flacco then got greedy, ending the first half as ignominiously as it began. He threw a pass for Boldin on the left sideline, which Chris Harris picked off, running it back 98 yards for a Broncos touchdown. It was the second-longest play of that type by a Ravens opponent (Brodney Pool, Cleveland; 100 yards; November 2007) and the longest during Denver history.
In the bigger picture, a long afternoon contributed to what has already been a long month for the Ravens, who have no one to blame -- not even Manning -- except themselves.
Posted Dec. 16, 2012