BALTIMORE — The Ravens entered Sunday with roughly a 97-percent chance of making the playoffs, needing a win over Cincinnati or help from Miami or Jacksonville to punch their ticket.
An assist never came.
According to ESPN, their win probability still stood at 93.4 percent when Cincinnati burned its final timeout, facing a fourth-and-12 at the Baltimore 49 with 53 seconds to go. We know what happened next, and there’s no kind way to put it.
The Ravens choked. Once again, they couldn’t finish, an all-too-common theme of the post-Super Bowl XLVII era.
But this wasn’t arguably the greatest quarterback in NFL history erasing two 14-point deficits against an undermanned Baltimore secondary in the 2014 playoffs. Or even Ben Roethlisberger finding Antonio Brown in the final seconds of a heartbreaking loss at Heinz Field last Christmas.
Those disappointments came on the road to superior teams, making them at least semi-tolerable after some time had passed. This one came in their own stadium where they’ve enjoyed one of the best home-field advantages in the NFL for nearly two decades.
Yes, the Ravens let Andy Dalton and Tyler Boyd — who entered the day with 17 receptions on the season — beat them on a 49-yard touchdown pass in the final minute. The Bengals, a losing team out of the playoffs and with nothing to play for on Sunday, ended Baltimore’s season this time.
What happens next is anyone’s guess. If owner Steve Bisciotti was full of “bewilderment” at the end of last season, how might he react to the Ravens missing the playoffs for the fourth time in five years despite a schedule that couldn’t have set up any better down the stretch? Would major changes really shock you after the most stunning home loss in team history and an abysmal first half from a team that came out flat and unprepared?
Head coach John Harbaugh needs to answer for that second part, especially on the heels of an uninspiring performance against Indianapolis last week.
It’s easy — and completely fair — to point blame at defensive coordinator Dean Pees, who reportedly plans to retire anyway. Few could argue that a defense that’s received so many resources over the last few years wouldn’t benefit from some new blood in the coaching department. Even if Pees changes his mind, it’s difficult to envision him coming back from something like this for a second year in a row.
Frankly, this organization needs to take a long look in the mirror and realize it’s about more than just another late defensive collapse. The truth is the overall vision has been flawed since raising the Lombardi Trophy in New Orleans five years ago. Ever since being led to a Super Bowl championship by Joe Flacco and their offense, the Ravens have been trying to chase the ghost of the 2000 defense, almost as if they were ashamed to have won their second championship in the manner they did.
General manager Ozzie Newsome signed Flacco to a big contract like any team would have in that position and has proceeded to pump virtually all meaningful resources into the other side of the ball while expecting the quarterback to be something he’s not. And please don’t say it’s all because of the quarterback’s salary cap number either as the Ravens have selected 13 defensive players with their 17 Day 1 and Day 2 picks over the last five drafts, the best avenue for finding inexpensive talent.
Even with all those picks as well as free-agent dollars exhausted, we’re still talking about the same defensive shortcomings while the offensive holes are mostly filled at the dollar store in hopes of being average if everything goes perfectly. The unbalanced approach has repeatedly netted a below-average offense and a good — but not great — defense with one playoff appearance in five years.
The Ravens can’t allow the finish to this season to fool them like it did a year ago when they went all in on defense in the offseason and barely touched the offense after the collapse against Pittsburgh. It was a commendable finish to 2017 by Flacco despite how little he had to work with and his own health concerns, but this offense was woeful over the first three months of the season and was inept in the first half of Sunday’s game, a big reason why the Ravens trailed by 14 midway through the third quarter.
The offense needs more skill-position talent and more innovative coaching.
This model of repeatedly trying to build a super defense while asking Flacco to do more with less just isn’t working. The truth is it’s really, really difficult to build a historic defense in today’s NFL, no matter how many resources you continue to pump into it.
Meanwhile, the Super Bowl XLVII Most Valuable Player will be turning 33 later this month and isn’t getting any younger. Flacco has his obvious flaws, but he’s proven to be good enough to win if this organization would make more than a halfhearted effort to build around him. Maybe the defense wouldn’t then find itself in quite as many of these late-game situations with little margin for error.
Frankly, I’ll still take my chances with Flacco and a better supporting cast around him over a defense that doesn’t have a 25-year-old Ray Lewis or Ed Reed walking through the door.
To be clear, this isn’t a call for Bisciotti to completely blow it up top to bottom. From Newsome to Harbaugh and others behind the scenes, there is a track record of past success that shouldn’t just be thrown away in haste.
But the same old practices aren’t working and haven’t for a while.
An embarrassing loss to the Bengals to ruin a trip to the playoffs should spark change, but it remains to be seen whether the Ravens will recognize that or just go down the same old path again.