OWINGS MILLS – Moments after the Baltimore Ravens’ debacle of a loss to the Cincinnati Bengals that exposed glaring issues on both sides of the football, running back Ray Rice said it’s time for players to look at themselves in the mirror as they search for answers.
Nowadays, that reflection isn’t so inviting.
Not with the Ravens (4-4) having fallen two games behind the Bengals in the AFC North division after losing four of the past five games.
Certainly not with all of the mounting turnovers, penalties, third-down failures, shoddy tackling and a lackluster, emotionless, plodding start that triggered a pivotal 17-7 loss Sunday that wasn’t nearly as close as the final score.
Now, the Ravens have reached a crossroads midway through the season.
Will they emerge as a legitimate contender or a middle-of-the-pack pretender? Recent evidence strongly suggests that it’s the latter.
“If you’re going to define us right now, you would have to say we’re a .500 team,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said Monday. “That’s where we are at this point. We’re a .500 team that’s lost four of the last five. We’re struggling to find a way to win a game right now.
“We have guys fighting like crazy to try to find a way to win a football game. We have come up short way too many times, and I’d say too many times for the kind of team we are. We’re not as disciplined as we need to be. We don’t make plays like we need to make them.”
Against the Bengals, that was definitely the case as the Ravens were swept in the season series for the fourth time in franchise history.
They allowed 369 yards of total offense as the Bengals controlled the time of possession 40 minutes to the Ravens’ 20 minutes.
They were penalized seven times for 80 yards, reinforcing a season-long trend where the Ravens’ defensive backs are magnets for costly pass interference infractions.
“For whatever reason, we have not done things well, especially in critical situations,” Harbaugh said. “I think the penalties are a big part of that. We have had penalties that have keep drives alive way too often this season. Same thing on offense that have put us in a hole. We’re just not getting it done.”
Quarterback Joe Flacco uncharacteristically struggled with his accuracy and forced passes into heavy coverage, throwing two interceptions. It could have been four interceptions if not for the Bengals’ suspect hands.
The offense manufactured a season-low 215 yards of total offense with just 44 gained in the first half when the game was being decided. They somehow managed to convert only 1 of their 10 third-down situations.
Bengals running back Cedric Benson trampled the Ravens’ defense for 117 yards, a rare occasion of a back eclipsing the century mark two games in a row.
For the second time this season, kicker Steve Hauschka flubbed a key field goal try in the fourth quarter.
"Obviously we’re very disappointed with the result, and we’re disappointed with the way we played," Harbaugh said. "Cincinnati beat us really every way you can beat a team."
In particular, free safety Ed Reed, who’s dealing with a painful nerve impingement, was unable to bring runners down as he missed three to four tackles that he would normally make.
One year removed from a surprising march to the AFC championship game during Harbaugh’s rookie season, the Ravens have regressed.
Their previous three-game losing streak was marked by close contests, losing by a grand total of 11 points.
This time, they fell behind 17-0 in the first half as the Bengals scored on each of their first three drives.
Often, it wasn’t even close to competitive for the Ravens.
So, what happens now?
Do the Ravens make lineup changes?
Do they change strategies after an inconsistent first half of the season?
Harbaugh pointed a finger Monday .. at himself.
“As we sit here and take a look at where we’re going, first of all, it starts with me,” Harbaugh said. “It’s my job to give our guys every opportunity to play as well as they can play, and I’ve got to find a way to do my job better.
“My job is to make sure I can be the best head coach I can be, and, right now, I’m not getting the job done. The way our team played last week was not a good performance by the head coach.”
As the Ravens approach an extremely winnable game against the 1-7 Cleveland Browns on Monday night, they’re facing the reality that they’ll likely need to win six of their final eight games to qualify for a playoff berth.
Nine wins probably won’t be enough to claim a wild-card spot based on recent NFL history.
“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.”
Toward that end, Harbaugh isn’t preoccupied with using his calculator and contemplating playoff scenarios.
Not with so many games left to play and so many shortcomings to address internally.
“I’m pretty sure we’ve got to win a bunch of games to get there,” Harbaugh said. “And we’ve got to be a lot better than 4-4 in the second half to get it done.”
There are extremely demanding games remaining on the schedule, including the undefeated Indianapolis Colts and two games with the defending Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers.
There are also many games that fall into the category of the Browns matchup, including the Detroit Lions, Chicago Bears and Oakland Raiders.
The Ravens’ outlook is uncertain, and not exactly promising right now due to their inconsistency and chronic slow starts.
“Don’t hit the panic button just yet,” outside linebacker Terrell Suggs said. “We’re not out of the playoffs. It’s not where we wanted to be or expected to be, but it’s where we are. We have to be men and climb on out of it.”