PITTSBURGH, Pa. — After suffering another crushing playoff defeat Saturday, Baltimore Ravens Head Coach John Harbaugh offered a telling postgame statement.
“We just weren’t great enough today to win that football game.”
His team certainly wasn’t.
It was one more crushing defeat for the Ravens (13-5) against the Pittsburgh Steelers (13-4), this time a 31-24 meltdown in the AFC divisional round at Heinz Field.
In three seasons under Harbaugh, the Ravens have suffered more than their fair share of such losses.
This one was likely the most crushing of the Harbaugh era, if not the most crushing in franchise history.
Leading 21-7 at the half, the Ravens appeared well on their way to a trip to the AFC Championship Game and well on their way to finally vanquishing their AFC North nemesis in the process.
Three turnovers later, the Ravens found themselves in a dogfight they wouldn’t win.
They were close.
For moments, they were great.
But in the end, Harbaugh was right. They weren’t great enough.
(Here’s the part where fans can feel free to add in the word “again.”)
Not being “great enough” is frustrating. It’s more frustrating when there’s no obvious answer regarding how the team can get there.
I posed the question to Harbaugh following the season ending defeat.
How does this team become “great enough”?
“That’s what we’ll have to study” responded Harbaugh. “We’ll go to work in the offseason and try to build our team the best way we can. Things come up and things happen, you’ve got to adjust and you’ve got to adapt. You never know on a journey what bend the road’s gonna take. You gotta overcome some adversity and some obstacles and we’ll have to build our team the best way we can to be great enough to these kind of games.”
I know what you’re thinking. It sounds like coach speak. It is to some extent. But there’s truth to it.
The truth is that the team really is close to being “great enough”.
On Saturday, it took a blown 14 point lead, those three turnovers, crucial late drops from WR’s Anquan Boldin & TJ Houshmandzadeh and a miraculous 58 yard pass from Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger to WR Antonio Brown for the Ravens to be eliminated.
They were about as close to finally getting past the Steelers as possible without actually picking up a victory.
I asked Harbaugh after the game if after another crushing defeat he still believed the team was close to being “great enough”. He agreed, but he added one more thought.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do.”
That’s the reality. The reality is that the Ravens are unbelievably close to turning the corner.
On Saturday night, they actually came to a stop right at the corner. They just couldn’t quite make the turn.
But turning the corner is still going to take a lot of work.
The Ravens have played three seasons with Harbaugh as head coach. In two of those seasons, losing came directly at the hands of the Steelers.
In breaking news (but not necessarily first reported by WNST), the Steelers aren’t coming off the schedule next season.
To become “great enough”, the Ravens are going to have to figure out a way to get past the Steelers.
As DT Haloti Ngata told me after the game, “something has to change, because it’s always them.”
There will be plenty of theories tossed around about how the Ravens can get over the hump.
Many in the fanbase will point their frustration towards Offensive Coordinator Cam Cameron, whose offense struggled to get out of their own way for the bulk of the 2nd half in the Steel City. Others will direct their frustration towards Defensive Coordinator Greg Mattison, who continued to employ a three man rush in 3rd and long situations, including the 58 yarder that set up the game winning touchdown.
Personnel wise, the Ravens will have clear needs in their offensive line and pass rush, but will likely have to re-examine their receiving corps and defensive backfield as well.
Some changes could be out of their hands. Asked about his future after the game, WR Derrick Mason said “I’m not gonna think about it right now.”
C Matt Birk, S Ed Reed and TE Todd Heap could all be forced to similarly consider whether or not they will indeed return to the NFL next season.
FB Le’Ron McClain, RB Willis McGahee and Houshmandzadeh have never hid their displeasure with their roles in Cameron’s offense. Boldin has been less vocal, but has often looked frustrated.
McClain and Houshmandzadeh are joined in (at least potential) free agency this offseason by other valuable contributors like WR Donte’ Stallworth, OT Jared Gaither, OL Marshal Yanda, CB’s Chris Carr & Josh Wilson, S Dawan Landry, P Sam Koch, Ngata and more.
And then there’s the quarterback.
A week after finally putting together a “breakthrough” playoff performance in a Wild Card round win over the Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium, Joe Flacco returned to a more “pedestrian” level in the loss to the Steelers.
He was 16/30 for 125 yards with a touchdown, an interception and a lost fumble.
On the team’s final drive of the game he wildly overthrew Heap and threw a very poor deep ball to Mason before getting sacked. On 4th and long he threw a decent pass but it was dropped by Houshmandzadeh.
Following the loss, fans immediately took to Facebook and Twitter to ask a familiar question.
“Does Flacco have ‘it’?”
GM Ozzie Newsome and Harbaugh will have to answer that question this offseason.
Harbaugh wasn’t just throwing around coach speak when he addressed what it would take to reach greatness. He was offering a truthful reflection regarding what the organization was going to have to this offseason.
The answer just wasn’t quite as fulfilling as some fans would want.
They were unbelievably close Saturday night. They were close enough that the Steelers needed a near miracle to win at home.
Yet this offseason will be one where they have to evaluate all aspects of their organization in order to determine what it will take to finally get past the Steelers.
At halftime, they were 30 minutes away from one of the greatest moments in franchise history.
In those 30 minutes, the collapse wasn’t suffered by the players and coaches alone.
The collapse was suffered by the entire organization.
NOTES: Hear from Harbaugh, Flacco, Mason, McClain, Ngata, Houshmandzadeh, LB Ray Lewis, WR Marcus Smith, CB Lardarius Webb, LB Terrell Suggs and RB Ray Rice following the loss now in the BuyAToyota.com Audio Vault here at WNST.net……Rice played despite flu-like symptoms Friday night, he said following the game he hadn’t eaten solid food in two days……The Ravens will return to 1 Winning Drive in Owings Mills Monday to clean out their lockers. Harbaugh is scheduled to meet with the media