After helpless San Diego showing, Ravens now need familiar help down stretch

December 19, 2011 | Luke Jones

With the Ravens suffering a 34-14 beating at the hands of the surging San Diego Chargers, much will be written and opined as they try to quickly move past arguably the worst loss of the John Harbaugh era.

Can a secondary that had fared so beautifully throughout the season pick itself up off the ground after San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers picked it apart throughout the night?

Are Joe Flacco and the Ravens capable of keeping up in a high-scoring affair in the postseason against a high-octane passing attack like New England or — (gulp) — the Chargers again?

Will the road woes of kicker Billy Cundiff doom the Ravens at a critical juncture in January?

All are valid questions despite the 10-4 Ravens officially finding themselves in the postseason thanks to losses suffered by the Tennessee Titans, New York Jets, and Oakland Raiders on Sunday. Ironically, on the day they clinched their fourth straight playoff berth, the Ravens now find themselves in another all-too-familiar place at this juncture of the season.

Needing help to improve their postseason positioning.

Two victories over the Pittsburgh Steelers had the Ravens poised to secure their first AFC North title since 2006 and to possibly earn the No. 1 seed and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. Instead, the Ravens’ inability to win on the road in the regular season may now send them away from M&T Bank Stadium, as they have been for the last three postseasons.

Just as their fans will, the Ravens will now watch the San Francisco 49ers try to knock off Pittsburgh on Monday night to put Baltimore back in the driver seat of the division race.

It’s an uncomfortable feeling. A helpless one, in fact.

But it’s one of their own doing after four road losses — all coming against teams with losing records at the time — in which the Ravens played so poorly that there’s too much blame to simply pinpoint one area or individual. It goes beyond the play-calling of Cam Cameron, the erratic play of Joe Flacco, or miscommunication in the defense.

Save for a near-miraculous comeback win in Pittsburgh and victories over substandard St. Louis and Cleveland, Baltimore just can’t find its mojo with any semblance of consistency when it ventures away from the friendly confines of Russell Street.

Credit the Chargers for putting together the kind of performance people expected from the consensus pick to win the AFC West entering the season. The Ravens lost to a great quarterback and a surging football team on Sunday night — one that should be much better than its 7-7 record indicates — but the way in which they were utterly dominated in all phases of the game stirs pregnant pause.

Of course, the Ravens are still a very good football team holding a 10-4 record. It’s important not to overreact to such an alarming loss just like their heroics in Pittsburgh didn’t assure them of a championship, either.

But Sunday night’s performance was a humbling reminder of how difficult it can be to beat quality teams on the road, even in the regular season. The scary reality is the Ravens are now faced with the prospects of having to do it again — multiple times — in January if they want to reach their ultimate goal of the Super Bowl in Indianapolis.

Baltimore has certainly proven to be as capable as anyone in doing so after winning four road playoff games over the last three seasons. But, the Ravens have fallen short of the Super Bowl each time, pointing to their need to play games at M&T Bank Stadium where they have won 17 of their last 18 games and are a perfect 7-0 in 2011.

The Ravens had their chance to keep that desire firmly in their hands before Rivers and the Chargers ripped it away emphatically by scoring 34 points and accumulating 415 yards of offense on Sunday night.

Baltimore will recover and take care of business against Cleveland next Saturday before heading out on the road again to take on the Cincinnati Bengals, who still find themselves in the playoff hunt. The health of cornerback Lardarius Webb, who was limited to nickel-package duty, linebacker Ray Lewis, and Cundiff will be closely monitored. Two wins aren’t assured, but are reasonably expected even after such a deflating defeat.

But the Ravens will also find themselves looking around for a helping hand — or two. Without the assistance, they’ll again be playing away from M&T Bank Stadium in January.

Where the road to Indianapolis is that much harder.