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Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco uttered all that really could be said about a disastrous 49-27 defeat at the hands of the Denver Broncos to begin the 2013 season.
“It was one of those nights.”
Head coach John Harbaugh can only hope it’s as simple as that after the Ravens surrendered 35 points in the second half, transforming a 17-14 halftime lead into a 22-point shellacking in which the Baltimore defense allowed a franchise-record 49 points in the first game of the post-Ray Lewis era. Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning tied an NFL record with seven touchdown passes against a defense that looked exhausted and overmatched — particularly in the secondary — for much of the night.
Offensively, the fears at the wide receiver and tight end positions came to fruition as Flacco struggled to find open targets and when he did, they often couldn’t catch the football. The Ravens lost wide receiver Jacoby Jones (knee) and right tackle Michael Oher (ankle) to injury, further depleting an offense already with little room for mistakes.
The special teams were just as bad as backup safety Brynden Trawick inexplicably ran into Jones on a punt return — leading to the Pro Bowl returner specialist’s knee injury — and allowed a Sam Koch punt to be blocked to set up another Denver touchdown. And that’s only scratching the surface for Jerry Rosburg’s units.
Just one of those nights?
As ugly as the final stats and the second half were in the first season-opening loss of the Harbaugh era, it’s easy to forget the Ravens held the momentum late in the first half before two crucial moments became the catalysts for one of the worst defeats of the Harbaugh era. It’s often said that the difference between winning and losing can come down to just a play or two, but in this case, it was two plays that transformed a tight game into an unmerciful beating.
A perfectly-thrown Flacco pass to tight end Dallas Clark bounced right off his hands on what would have been a sure touchdown with just seconds remaining until intermission. Instead of a seven-point lead, the Ravens settled for a 25-yard field goal by Justin Tucker to go into the locker room ahead three points.
The second key moment came on Denver’s opening drive of the second half when Manning delivered a low throw to Wes Welker that clearly hit the ground as the slot receiver secured it. The play was ruled a catch, but Harbaugh elected not to throw his challenge flag, blaming the lack of a timely replay for his coaches upstairs to get a good look at the play after the game.
“This is the first I’ve heard of it,” Harbaugh said after the game. “That’s something you have to see. It would be nice if NBC would show it, but we didn’t have a chance to look at it.”
Whether it was the lack of a replay, a moment of indecisiveness, or Harbaugh simply trying to protect his staff upstairs, the floodgates opened two plays later on Manning’s 28-yard touchdown pass to Andre Caldwell and the Ravens were never competitive again. Had the play been challenged and the call overturned, the Baltimore defense would have forced a three-and-out, placing the ball back in the hands of Flacco and the offense with a three-point lead and further easing the pain of Clark’s drop on the final series of the first half.
Make no mistake, putting too much blame on Clark’s drop and Harbaugh’s decision to keep his red challenge flag in his pocket bails out what was an atrocious defensive effort and an inept offensive showing in the second half, but those mistakes highlight how small the margin for error might be for the Ravens this season — at least early on. With 19 new players on the 53-man roster and the departures of a number of key veterans including Lewis and longtime safety Ed Reed, the Ravens are certainly vulnerable to some growing pains in terms of both leadership and play on the field.
The loss of Jones in the first half eliminated the fear of a deep-ball threat on both sides of formations for the Ravens offense, allowing Denver safeties to focus carefully on Torrey Smith, who finished the night with four catches for 92 yards. Ed Dickson and Clark only magnified concerns about the tight end position with a number of drops. If you’re looking for a positive, rookie wide receiver Marlon Brown’s 13-yard touchdown catch in the fourth quarter was one of the few bright spots for the offense as he finished with four catches for 65 yards.
The Ravens defense had no excuses for how it played in the second half as the secondary was absolutely torched by Manning, who ate up the Baltimore safeties — particularly free safety Michael Huff — on two touchdowns to young tight end Julius Thomas and abused cornerback Corey Graham throughout the night. With expectations high for a defense that experienced a dramatic makeover, the secondary was the biggest question mark entering the season as only cornerback Lardarius Webb received a passing grade in the group.
Hyped by some to be one of the most formidable groups in franchise history, the front seven collected three sacks against Manning but didn’t provide consistent pressure to aid a defensive backfield overwhelmed by too many weapons.
So, does this all mean the Ravens are doomed? Hardly.
It was only last December when the Ravens were in a similar position against the Broncos when a critical Flacco interception returned for a touchdown before halftime turned a tight game into one of the worst losses of the Harbaugh era. The rest was history after that embarrassing loss as the Ravens didn’t lose another meaningful game — starters were rested against Cincinnati in Week 17 — on their path to a Super Bowl title.
Even the record-setting 2000 Ravens defense gave up 36 points at home against Mark Brunell and the Jacksonville Jaguars in a Week 2 shootout before ultimately setting a record for fewest points allowed in a 16-game season and winning the Super Bowl a few months later.
You’re never as bad as you look at your lowest point, but the concerns are real, ranging from who Flacco can trust in the passing game to whether this Ravens defense is as good as it was thought to be on paper with such a poor showing from the secondary.
The opening game will always be magnified because there’s no body of work on which to base observations and this marks the first time the Ravens have ever started 0-1 under Harbaugh. It’s also the first time since October 2008 in which the Ravens find themselves below the .500 mark, which is a testament to Harbaugh and his coaching staff and an easy reminder not to press the panic button just yet.
Still, Thursday night did not provide a good feeling after an offseason filled with more personnel changes and unknowns than any other defending Super Bowl champion had experienced in recent memory.
You can only hope it truly was just one of those nights with much better days ahead.