On Football

For Ravens, little things will add up to a loss

By Albert R. Breer
January 10, 2010

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A great coach once said, “You are what your record says you are,’’ and while the Ravens are 9-7, it’s how they got to the “7’’ that can lead you to this afternoon’s result.

That drop by Mark Clayton Oct. 4?

A stroke of luck for the Patriots in their win that day, to be sure. But also the first sign of what was to become of the Baltimore season.

The Ravens are the big bully. Let them get on top of you, get in your head, and you’re in trouble. Giving them a lead is a green light for the defense to turn up the chaos, and the offense to smother an opponent into submission.

But if the Patriots keep it close, play disciplined, and remain patient, a win will fall into their laps. And that’s why, come late afternoon, New England’s players will be planning for California without worrying about tee times.

The best Ravens teams of the past decade thrived on playing on the edge of full-scale rage. Too often this year, they fell off that edge, and over time, that flaw has marked the club’s identity.

“You can’t afford to dial back the intensity and have a chance to win,’’ Baltimore coach John Harbaugh said. “It’s making better decisions in some critical moments. Right there, at the moment of truth, you’ve got to make a choice to clock a guy in the back or not. Is he inbounds or out of bounds?

“That’ll be our challenge up there in New England, too. This is an ongoing thing. We’re going to need to play a very smart, a very physical, a well-executed football game to have a chance to win.’’

Arizona proved last season that a team can, indeed, reinvent itself in January. But much more often than not, the team you are over a 16-game season is the team you’re revealed to be in the playoffs.

The Ravens are the most heavily penalized team in the NFL. They’ve continually made critical errors in close games.

That explains why they are 1-6 against the other playoff teams, the win coming in Week 2 against the traditionally slow-starting Chargers. It also makes their 2-5 record in games decided by 6 points or fewer easy to figure - the first win in that San Diego game and the second over a Dennis Dixon-led Steelers team in overtime.

That’s not to say the Ravens aren’t good.

The fact that they have been able to survive all this, and still finish 9-7 and get in the playoffs tells you what they are capable of. The Ravens haven’t been blown out all year, and there’s not a whole lot to make you think it’ll happen in their second trip to Gillette Stadium.

But then, chances are the Patriots won’t be beaten soundly, either. And even with the issues the home team has had finishing opponents off this year, Baltimore has had even more problems late in games.

“[Those] are always aggravating when they’re happening, whether it’s the Colts, whether it’s a catch, whether it’s a field goal, whatever it is,’’ Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis said. “It’s not aggravating now, it’s more of a calmness, knowing that no matter what we go into, we have a real chance to win the football game and we have an opportunity to be in every game that’s close.

“We’ve played the Patriots. We’ve played the Colts. We’ve played the Vikings. Every one was a close game, so for us it’s understanding that we had to come back and correct the small things, because it’s the small things that would make us win those close games.’’

About those small things . . .

Clayton’s gaffe was just one of the “details’’ the Ravens let drop to the Gillette Stadium turf that day.

The Patriots’ first score of the day, a field goal, was the result of a Baltimore fumble on the opening kickoff. Their first touchdown came on a drive extended by a roughing-the-passer call on Haloti Ngata, which occurred on a third and 9 from the Raven 37.

New England’s next touchdown drive was aided by another roughing call, this one the infamous flag on Terrell Suggs on a second and 11.

And still, it all came down to that drop.

On that day, the Ravens put on a clinic on how little things become huge things. Fluke? More like foreshadowing.

Late in the December loss to the Steelers, a third-down interception was overturned by an illegal contact penalty, giving Pittsburgh the first down it needed to close the game out. The Packers game got away from Baltimore when a 46-yard catch by Derrick Mason was negated by an offensive pass interference call. An unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on the receiver put the Ravens in a third-and-32 situation.

And before that, an unnecessary roughness penalty put the Colts in range to kick the winning field against Baltimore.

These aren’t the only factors in the Ravens’ inconsistency. Quarterback Joe Flacco has struggled with his mechanics and has taken big sacks far too often. The pass defense was rebuilt on the fly, but is now suspect again with Lardarius Webb and Fabian Washington on injured reserve. Kicking has been an issue.

That’s not to say Baltimore doesn’t have the edge in some areas today. The loss of Wes Welker as a hot receiver against the Ravens’ blitz is an even bigger problem than some realize. The Patriots have struggled against the run, have hobbled defensive linemen, and will be facing a coordinator, Cam Cameron, whose teams have always been able to move it on the ground against them.

In the end, though, chances are a lot of the teams’ holes will cancel each other out and it will be a tight one. Advantage: Patriots.

When comparing regular-season football to playoff football, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady said, “The biggest difference is there’s less of a margin for error.’’

The point he was making is that each mistake is illuminated, kind of the way they were back in October.

And knowing what happened then is reason enough to believe this Patriots season will last another week.

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