CINCINNATI – It was a costly slumber for the Baltimore Ravens, and another puzzling slow start has created a harsh reality midway through the season.
One week removed from their top performance this year, the Ravens inexplicably played one of their worst games of the season. Major damage was inflicted on their shaky playoff outlook.
The consequences of their 17-7 defeat against the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium could wind up haunting them for the remainder of the season. Strangely, the Ravens appeared to lack their usual intensity despite the pivotal importance of this contest.
“It sucks, man,” outside linebacker Terrell Suggs said. “Some days we can beat a division leader, and some days we just get beat. .. We have eight games. We have to win the ones we’re supposed to win. That’s reality. That’s where we put ourselves.”
The Ravens (4-4) don’t have much margin for error after being swept by the Bengals (6-2) for the fourth time in franchise history, slipping two games behind the first-place Bengals in the AFC North. It marks the Ravens’ fourth loss in the past five games, making them a long shot to claim the division.
The confusing aspect of the loss is that it transpired one week after a dominant 30-7 victory over the previously undefeated Denver Broncos.
Falling behind 17-0 as the Bengals scored on each of their first three drives, the defense regressed after last week’s stingy performance as they were picked apart by quarterback Carson Palmer in the first half.
Palmer improved to 8-3 all-time against the Ravens.
“Yes, this was frustrating,” running back Ray Rice said. “I’m not going to be naïve about it. It’s very frustrating, but in this league, if you stay frustrated, you’ll be frustrated the rest of the season. ..
"There is nothing that the coaches can do about this. Us as players, we have to go look in the mirror and evaluate each other."
The Ravens wound up allowing 369 yards of total offense as burly running back Cedric Benson ran roughshod over the NFL’s fourth-ranked run defense for the second time this season.
Benson rushed for 117 yards and a touchdown on 34 bruising carries.
It’s the second time that the NFL rushing leader has eclipsed the century mark against the Ravens after breaking their 39-game streak without allowing a 100-yard rusher during a 17-14 win over Baltimore last month.
The Bengals dominated time of possession, at a clip of 40 minutes to 20 minutes.
“I don’t think we played well,” defensive end Trevor Pryce said. “None of us played well.”
And the offense managed to generate only 44 yards and three first downs by halftime as they couldn’t erase the deficit. They finished with a season-low 215 yards of total offense.
The slow starts are becoming more than a trend. They’re practically becoming the standard for the Ravens with no touchdowns in the first half for the third game in a row.
“I’m not going to let anyone define our identity for us,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “We started off slow and we started off slow a few weeks ago against Minnesota. We need to start off fast and we weren’t able to do that. They were. The slow starts are not good.
“It’s got to be an emphasis. We did it last week, we came out strong. We want to come out aggressive and making plays, but we didn’t do it. We’ve got to find a way to start the game better. We’ll look at it and try to figure it out.”
The loss created enough frustration that veteran wide receiver Derrick Mason, who was shut out in the first meeting with Cincinnati and didn’t catch a pass until the second half, declined interview requests afterward.
“I’m not saying anything,” said Mason, who caught three passes for 31 yards despite being targeted 13 times.
Middle linebacker Ray Lewis began talking on his cell phone when reporters approached him for interviews in the locker room.
The slow starts have left the Ravens at a loss to explain why they were unable to mount an attack against the Bengals until finally ending the shutout in the fourth quarter on a Rice touchdown run.
“Nothing can account for it,” said Rice, who rushed for 48 yards on 12 carries and caught eight passes for 87 yards. “That’s just us. The coaches can’t do anything about that. We as players, this is what we get paid to do.
“We get paid to come out and play fast. When we were able to move the ball, we moved the ball up and down the field, a point when it was too late.”
Quarterback Joe Flacco was erratic as he was intercepted two times and could have thrown four interceptions if not for the Bengals’ shaky hands.
Flacco completed 18 of 32 passes for 195 yards and no touchdowns for a season-worst 48.3 quarterback rating.
However, his play was below freezing in the first half as he completed just 4 of 9 passes for 27 yards for a 12.0 rating.
“We didn’t have much tempo to our offense and shot ourselves in the foot and got ourselves into a hole,” Flacco said. “We’ll look at it and see what really happened. I think we’re going to be disappointed in ourselves.
“I don’t think we had the urgency we needed to be successful and we realized that we needed to get it going. We came out in the second half with some urgency, but weren’t able to get it done.”
A particularly troubling breakdown transpired after the Ravens were finally gaining some ground on the Bengals in the fourth quarter.
After a methodical drive capped by Rice’s touchdown run behind left offensive guard Ben Grubbs, the Ravens got the ball back when free safety Ed Reed stripped the football away from wide receiver Chad Ochocinco on the Bengals’ ensuing possession.
Reed’s return and a lateral to Chris Carr gave the Ravens the ball at the Bengals’ 47-yard line.
Seven plays later, kicker Steve Hauschka missed a 38-yard field goal that he pushed wide of the left upright.
The Ravens never threatened to score again.
This is the second big kick that Hauschka has missed since replacing Matt Stover, including a potential game-winning 44-yard field goal he also flubbed wide left during a 33-31 loss to the Minnesota Vikings.
“There’s concern about everything,” said Harbaugh, who recently auditioned free agent kickers Mike Nugent and Connor Barth as a precautionary measure when Hauschka had a foot injury. “We have so many things to be concerned about right now, so we have to look at everything.
“We’ll take a look at the kick. I was disappointed he missed the kick. He has kicked the ball a lot better than that, so it’s something that needs to be better.”
The Bengals struck immediately as the Ravens allowed a touchdown on their opening series for the first time this season.
With Palmer and Benson moving the ball, the Bengals marched down to the Ravens’ six-yard line.
With an eternity of time to find an open target, Palmer located wide receiver Andre Caldwell as he cut inside away from Carr for a six-yard touchdown catch.
Aided by a pair of defensive pass interference penalties against Dawan Landry and Fabian Washington in coverage against Chad Ochocinco as well as a missed tackle by Reed on wide receiver Laveranues Coles on an end-around, the Bengals backed the Ravens up to the goal line before Benson dove over the top for a one-yard touchdown run.
“You look at every penalty on its own merits,” Harbaugh said. “There’s jostling one way and it gets called. There’s jostling the other way and it doesn’t get called.
“There’s nothing we can do about it. We just have to teach our guys to cover. I’m looking forward to seeing what the interpretation is and we’ll learn from it.”
Ochocinco, who sent boxes of deodorant to the Ravens’ defense prior to the game as a joke, wound up catching five passes for 66 yards. And Coles finished with six catches for 72 yards.
The Bengals scored again on Shayne Graham’s 23-yard field goal, a chip shot that boosted them to a 17-0 lead at halftime.
Flacco was under heavy duress throughout the game. He was sacked a season-high four times.
Instead of a dramatic rematch, this was a game that wasn’t as close as the final score.
The Bengals utilized their bye week to full advantage, devising new schemes and strategies that left the Ravens a step behind and a bit confused for the majority of the game.
“They did a lot differently,” Harbaugh said. “A lot of their routes were different, a lot of their tendencies were different.
“They did a nice job of executing. We couldn’t get off the field on third down in the first quarter, and a lot of that had to do with changing up what they normally do.”
The Ravens were penalized seven times for 80 yards.
Entering the game ranked third in the NFL in third-down conversion percentage, the Ravens converted only 1 of 10 third downs against Cincinnati.
Conversely, the Bengals converted 8 of 18 third downs and managed to score on 2 of their 3 red-zone trips.
And the Ravens have allowed a 100-yard rusher in three of their past four games.
“Technique and physical play,” Pryce said. “They have big, tough, physical guys and their running back is really good. If you come in and not do the things you’re coached to do the right way every play, that’s what happens.”
Now, the Ravens are looking to regroup heading into a Monday night road game against the hapless Cleveland Browns (1-7).
To make it back to the playoffs, the Ravens will likely have to win at least six of their final eight games.
“Obviously, every game becomes huge now,” tight end Todd Heap said. “There’s always small margin for error, but when you lose a few games early that’s how you set yourselves up. We kind of know where we’re at and what we’ll have to do.”
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.