Tuesday, December 1, 2009

One for Two

After a trip to Prague, Vienna and Budapest, I'm back in the states.

On one hand, I'm happy to be back in the land of hot showers and free water at restaurants. On the other hand, I'm back at work. I'd much rather still be across the Atlantic, looking up how to say "thank you" in Hungarian, even if that means being 3,000 miles away from my Ravens.

But it didn't feel that long. During my week-long jaunt, I was able to catch the second half of the Ravens loss to the Colts at a bar called Jama Pub. It's owned by a Chicago native, and he's able to show a few games each week thanks to the American Forces Network. I am not sure if I should be thankful for that or not. The game was a classical Ravens choke job against a superior opponent that I wished I'd missed.

Flacco threw for 256 yards, but no TD's and his lone INT was costly.

In a game that many Ravens fans thought would be lost before the first quarter ended, the Ravens hung with the Colts for the entire game, despite not scoring a touchdown on the day. The defense held Peyton Manning in check for the most part, holding him to just 1 TD, and intercepting him twice. The Ravens forced the Colts into 3 turnovers on the day but still couldn't come away with the win.

After a Joseph Addai rushing TD put the Colts up 14-9 in the second quarter, the Ravens eventually took the lead at the start of the 4th quarter thanks to newly signed kicker Billy Cundiff's 5th FG of the day. The FG, however, came on a first and goal situation where the Ravens were unable to find the endzone. And after a Matt Stover FG (remember, he plays for the Colts now, sigh) put the Colts back up 17-15, the Ravens had an opportunity to win the game on their final drive.

Joe Flacco lead the team down to the Colts 14-yard line, and they were already in position to set up a potential game-winning field goal, but Flacco threw a pass over the middle which was intercepted by Colts linebacker Gary Brackett.

Game over.

It was another Ravens loss full of missed opportunities and self-inflicted wounds. Where to begin? Despite Cundiff hitting 5 FG's on the day, he missed one, which was the difference in the loss. Then there was the failed goal line stand that resulted in a FG. And then there is Flacco's costly INT, which was just another reminder that he hasn't been himself since the Minnesota game where he suffered a foot injury after being stepped on. And finally, there was coach John Harbaugh calling a timeout, then deciding to challenge a questionable call by the refs, which he lost, resulting in another used timeout.

So another season comes and goes without being able to beat the Colts.

The only bright spot of the game was Derrick Mason, who hauled in 9 passes for 142 yards.

The loss to the Colts set up a huge game at home against the Steelers the following week, after the Steelers lost to the Chiefs in a game where QB Ben Roethlisberger suffered a concussion. Safety Troy Polemalu was also still out, meaning that the Steelers would be severely undermanned coming into Baltimore. Third-string QB Dennis Dixon would be starting, and Ravens fans were frothing at the mouth for some payback against a Steeler team they had lost to 3 times the year before.

Rice rushed for 88 of the Ravens 132 rushing yards against the Steelers' #1 rush defense.

And despite being undermanned with the aforementioned injuries, the Steelers gave the Ravens all they had, before eventually losing in overtime.

It was a game the Ravens desperately needed. A loss would put them at 5-6 and essentially end their playoff hopes. But even with the win, the game showed why the Ravens are still in trouble going forward.

For one, penalties plague this team. They committed several boneheaded penalties last Sunday night, especially on Special Teams, which is Harbaugh's former specialty as a coordinator. You'd think he'd be able to reign that unit in, but they've regularly had good returns called back thanks to block in the back penalties.

Secondly, this team still has no pass rush. Dixon didn't throw very often, but when he did, he had all day. Whether it is Greg Mattison failing to design effective blitz schemes, refusing to blitz at all, or the players failing to execute, something has to be done to get more pressure on the QB.

Also, the Steelers ran the ball very effectively against the Ravens, totaling 152 yards on the ground. Thankfully, the Ravens were able to offset some of that with a solid rushing game of their own against the #1 ranked rush defense in the NFL. They gained 132 total rush yards.

And while the offense moved the ball up and down the field pretty well (393 total yards), they still failed to put the ball in the endzone consistently, which allowed the Steelers to hang around for most of the game, and eventually take the lead in the 4th quarter thanks to a Dennis Dixon 24-yard scramble for a TD.

Thankfully, the Ravens answered, eventually tying the game with 1:51 left in the 4th. They had an opportunity to win the game on a 51-yard field goal by Billy Cundiff, but after Flacco was sacked and fumbled with 25 seconds left, the Ravens had to hurry, which resulted in the ball dropping just feet in front of the goal post.

The Ravens held the Steelers in overtime, and a Paul Kruger (remember him?) interception of Dixon set up the Ravens game-winning Cundiff field goal. Dixon had played a good game up to that point, but you had to wonder when the Ravens would take advantage of his inexperience coming from his first career start in the NFL. And it was good to see Kruger, who had been inactive for most of the games this season and looking like a second-round bust, play a key part in the victory.

The win helped the Ravens as much as it hurt the Steelers, who have lost 3 in a row and are 2-3 in the division. They, like the Ravens, are 6-5.

Going forward, the Ravens still have two very tough games on the road remaining, next Monday night in Green Bay and December 27th in Pittsburgh. At 6-5, the Ravens could afford one more loss and still have a chance to make the playoffs at 10-6. But it'd be even better to run the table and basically guarantee a playoff berth at 11-5.

But the Ravens issues, and injuries, pretty much making running the table impossible.

The 2009 season was saved last Sunday night...but it still remains very much in jeopardy.

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