BALTIMORE — The Ravens took care of business in uneven fashion during a 20-14 win over the Cleveland Browns on Saturday afternoon, but they fought a losing battle in another important area.
It’s one that threatens to derail their quest to get to Indianapolis on the first Sunday in February.
During the course of their up-and-down performance at M&T Bank Stadium, the Ravens lost five players to injuries, with left guard Marshal Yanda (rib contusion), cornerback Cary Williams (concussion), linebacker Dannell Ellerbe (concussion), and return specialist David Reed (left knee injury) failing to return to action after leaving the game.
Fortunately for the Ravens, only Reed’s injury appears season-ending at the moment as the emotional receiver told reporters his season was likely over following the game. The second-year Reed will have an MRI in the next day or two to survey the extent of the injury.
Baltimore entered the game already without kicker Billy Cundiff, defensive end Cory Redding, and wide receiver Anquan Boldin, and the infirmary report only grew on Saturday.
Simply put, the Ravens are hurting.
The increasing number of injuries makes an extra week of rest even more of a necessity, and that’s not even considering the Ravens’ huge advantage playing at M&T Bank Stadium. For the first time in the 16-year history of the franchise, the Ravens finished undefeated at home and have now won 18 of their last 19 in their own stadium.
In order to earn that rest while staying home to begin the playoffs, the Ravens must defeat the Bengals in Cincinnati next week to clinch the AFC North title and to secure a first-round bye. The Bengals improved to 9-6 with a 23-16 win over Arizona on Saturday and are still alive in the playoff chase.
“We knew that we had to win two,” coach John Harbaugh said. “Now, we have to win one. It’s going to be an incredibly difficult environment [in Cincinnati] against a tremendous football team that we have a great rivalry against. I think that’s pretty much the way the NFL wanted it to be set up, and that’s the way it’s set up.”
They’ll have to win without Boldin, whose absence was apparent with the Ravens’ struggles in the passing game against Cleveland, and possibly others, depending on how a laundry list of injured takes shape over this coming week.
Quarterback Joe Flacco led the Ravens to the 20-14 victory over the Browns despite completing only two passes to wide receivers as Torrey Smith registered two catches for 38 yards and Lee Evans failed to record a reception despite being targeted four times. The Baltimore signal caller wasn’t done any favors with a few passes being dropped, including two by tight end Ed Dickson, but it’s clear the Ravens weren’t clicking as Flacco completed just 11 of 24 pass attempts and was just 3-for-12 in the second half.
The offense stalled badly in the second half after scoring 17 points and collecting 173 total yards in the first 30 minutes. After halftime, the Ravens had only five first downs and 111 yards as the Browns climbed back into the game.
“I don’t think we didn’t play well,” Flacco said. “I just think we had a couple plays where we could have done the simple things better, and we would have been perfect.”
As expected, the Ravens relied heavily on their ground game against a porous run defense, piling 162 rushing yards on 37 rushing attempts. The Ravens will figure to once again try to run to victory in Cincinnati, but the Bengals entered Week 16 with the NFL’s ninth-best rush defense.
Defensively, the Ravens played well in the first half, limiting Cleveland to no points and 142 total yards, and the formula continued through the Browns’ first three possessions of the second half when Baltimore forced them to go three-and-out. However, Cleveland running back Peyton Hillis gashed the Ravens as the game progressed, finishing with 112 yards on 24 carries to set up manageable third-down situations for Seneca Wallace and the Browns offense.
As we saw throughout last week’s 34-14 beating at the hands of the San Diego Chargers, the Ravens defense appeared a step slow and lethargic in the game’s final 15 minutes. The injury to Williams didn’t help the Baltimore secondary as Wallace finished off a fourth-quarter drive with a touchdown pass to tight end Evan Moore with 8:22 remaining to make it a one-score game.
The Ravens now have a starting defense that includes Ray Lewis and Lardarius Webb still feeling the effects of their respective toe injuries, Redding dealing with a sore ankle, and Williams and Ellerbe coming off concussions. They have an offense without its most consistent receiver and possibly its best offensive lineman, depending on how Yanda’s chest improves over the next seven days.
A bye week is desperately needed, but the Ravens must — somehow — beat the still-motivated Bengals to realize that goal. Cincinnati has much to play for, and the Ravens haven’t won a game at Paul Brown Stadium since 2008.
As has been a common theme for the Ravens all season long, it won’t be easy, but a win would be the difference between a better chance for a deep run in the postseason and a potential first-round exit if they must play on the road in the opening round.
“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,” Lewis said. “And for us, that’s the next step.”
To give themselves an opportunity to play their best football in the playoffs, the Ravens sorely need a week to heal and rest.
But they’ll need to make it through next week to have that opportunity.