Painful loss to Pittsburgh should still bring hope for Ravens

December 11, 2017 | Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — No matter the circumstances or stakes, losing to the Pittsburgh Steelers is about as painful as it gets for the Ravens.

That’s the burden of a tremendous rivalry as the sting of Sunday’s heartbreaking 39-38 defeat will linger throughout the week and possibly a little longer. Suffering their first regular-season sweep at the hands of the Steelers since 2008, many players were despondent in the locker room after squandering a two-score lead in the fourth quarter, conjuring memories of last year’s defensive collapse on Christmas.

Baltimore was one stop or one drive away from a huge victory at Heinz Field, but we know close only counts in horseshoes, right? Terrell Suggs was among those who didn’t want to hear about any moral victory of the Ravens giving Pittsburgh everything it could handle and then some as they led by nine points with less than seven minutes to go.

Coaches, players, media, and fans alike understand giving up 19 points in the final 13 minutes is inexcusable as Ben Roethlisberger threw for 506 yards — 228 in the fourth quarter — and Antonio Brown caught 11 passes for 213 yards, but there’s a critical difference with this one compared to last season’s Week 16 collapse. That loss left the Ravens to think all offseason about how close they came before Brown extended the ball over the goal line and eliminated them from playoff contention with that dramatic last-second touchdown.

Sunday certainly hurt, but the loss only narrowed the margin for error the rest of the way as they try to secure a wild-card spot and their first trip to the playoffs since 2014. A division title would have remained a long shot even with a win, so the task is clear for the Ravens as three wins against three sub-.500 opponents will still guarantee them some January football.

A narrow loss to Pittsburgh — the expected outcome in the eyes of most observers entering Week 14 — shouldn’t meaningfully alter anyone’s outlook for the final three weeks. If you don’t believe in the Ravens’ ability to beat Cleveland, Indianapolis, and Cincinnati, were you honestly expecting a competitive game against the Steelers in the first place?

A deep breath and 24 hours bring some needed perspective for the long-term outlook.

Had Chris Boswell missed the 46-yard field goal in the final minute or the Ravens simply made one more game-changing play down the stretch, euphoria undoubtedly would have replaced disgust and the focus would have been on a strong offensive showing for the second straight week rather than the terrible defensive performance. Concerns about the defense still would have been warranted had the Ravens figured out a way to escape western Pennsylvania with a win, but that wouldn’t have been the primary topic of discussion.

A signature win would have helped the eyeball test, but it wouldn’t have suddenly made Baltimore the new favorite in the AFC. A return trip to Heinz Field next month would have still labeled the Ravens as the underdog against the Steelers. This remains a flawed team, and a win wouldn’t have changed that if we’re being honest.

The silver lining from Sunday is that the offense was able to duplicate last week’s impressive production against Detroit. It’s no secret that this group has been the Ravens’ biggest weakness, but scoring a combined 82 points the last two games brings more optimism down the stretch. Alex Collins continues to look like a difference-maker while Joe Flacco has thrown for 538 yards and four touchdowns the last two weeks, marked improvement from what we’ve seen most of this season.

We knew this offense needed to improve if the Ravens were going to pose any threat in a potential trip to the postseason, and it’s finally showing signs of progress.

On the other hand, the defense is fairly being criticized after being carved up by Roethlisberger and giving up 59 points in its last six quarters of action, but the Ravens will now play three bottom-10 offenses to try to make necessary corrections and better adjust to life without top cornerback Jimmy Smith. Sunday certainly brought validation to the criticism regarding the lack of elite offenses on the schedule and the group’s ability without Smith on the field, but this defense has been good enough over the course of the season to at least envision better results on that side of the ball if the teams were to meet a third time.

It was only three years ago that the Ravens were blown out by the Steelers in their first full game without Smith and returned to Heinz Field two months later to win in the opening round of the playoffs. Regardless of how it ended Sunday night, a one-point road loss to an 11-2 team shouldn’t prompt any fear if given the chance to roll the dice again, and there isn’t much more you can ask for beyond that.

It’s fair to be ticked off about such a frustrating loss for the Ravens. Harbaugh and his team certainly are.

But it didn’t end their season this time around, and there was enough good to take away from the performance to ponder the possibilities of a third meeting sometime next month.

That is, if the Ravens handle their business between now and then.