BALTIMORE — Standing in the Baltimore Ravens’ somber tomb of a locker room, Willis McGahee shook his head in frustration.
In a season filled with calamity and crushing losses, the Ravens’ 17-15 defeat Sunday to the undefeated Indianapolis Colts represents another major punch in the gut. This marks the seventh loss in a row to the Colts (10-0), who have now won 19 consecutive regular-season games.
Several of those body shots were self-inflicted blows, serious damage that left this football team gasping for air as they try to catch their breath to gear up for an ultra-demanding, last-ditch playoff run.
Not only did former Baltimore kicker Matt Stover calmly knock in the game-winning field goal midway through the fourth quarter, but the Ravens (5-5) were stonewalled during prime opportunities to win the game as they were forced to settle for five field goals before 71,320 at M&T Bank Stadium .
“This tops all of the other losses,” McGahee said. “This is the worst one to have to swallow. Yeah, it hurts a lot.”
A strong bid to win the game behind a defense that contained the top quarterback in the league in Peyton Manning with two interceptions and holding him to one touchdown pass was ultimately ruined by an offense that continually stubbed its toe.
A late Joe Flacco interception and free safety Ed Reed’s ill-advised lateral at the end of the game that he fumbled away doomed the Ravens’ cause.
The Ravens forced three turnovers while playing without injured Pro Bowl outside linebacker Terrell Suggs, but were shut down on all four-red zone opportunities. The Ravens have lost all four of their games decided by four points or less this season.
“Instead of us scoring three as opposed to seven, we put them in a good position to take the game at the end and that’s what they did,” wide receiver Derrick Mason said. “We need to get to a point where we get tired of stuff and it can’t be a, ‘Well, we’ll get it next time.’
“Next time is coming to an end pretty soon and we need to get this stuff straightened out pretty quick. It’s the little things. And, damn it, we didn’t do it so we came out with a loss.”
The pain of being unable to capitalize on ideal chances was defined by a costly failure after gaining a first-and-goal at the Colts’ one-yard line in the fourth quarter.
First, Flacco was stopped on a sneak. Then, McGahee was stuffed twice in a row with no yards gained as the Ravens had to settle for a 20-yard field goal from newly-signed kicker Billy Cundiff.
McGahee had nowhere to run on the goal-line stand with defenders in his face immediately.
“Regardless of whether anyone missed a block, I’ve got to get in there,” McGahee said. “You just try to go forwards, not backwards. You can’t dance around. Everything happened so fast.”
Instead of potentially staking themselves to at least a four-point lead, the Ravens were ahead by just one point after settling for a field goal.
“They made the play they needed to make in a critical situation, that’s the end of that story,” offensive coordinator Cam Cameron said. “We felt like we could run the ball in there. We have a tremendous amount of confidence in Willis and the offensive line. We didn’t get the job done. They stopped us.
“You can analyze it any way you want to, but we felt good about running the ball in from the one-yard line and we didn’t get the job done. The story, as you all know, our defense played lights out, our special teams gave us incredible opportunities, but our offense wasn’t able to capitalize and score touchdowns. Everyone knows, everybody saw it.”
Ravens coach John Harbaugh was asked why fullback Le’Ron McClain wasn’t given the football, replying, "I don’t think it would have made a difference who was carrying the ball in that situation the way it played out."
During the goal-line stand, the Colts did an impeccable job of defeating blocks and tackling.
The offensive line got pushed around up the middle.
“When you’re on the one-yard line and you don’t get in, it’s just execution,” center Matt Birk said. “You’ve got to be more physical and you’ve got to surge. It hurts when you don’t score from the one-yard line, it hurts the team.”
The Ravens’ 15-14 lead was short-lived as the Colts, helped by a 15-yard unnecessary roughness penalty on defensive tackle Haloti Ngata, marched downfield to position Stover for his 25-yard game-winner.
The second-most accurate kicker in league history, Stover wasn’t retained during the offseason as he was informed by coach John Harbaugh and general manager Ozzie Newsome that they were moving in a new direction.
The Ravens signed Billy Cundiff this week after cutting an ineffective Steve Hauschka. Cundiff made five field goals to tie Stover’s franchise record set four previous times, but probably could have had six if not for a high snap from Matt Katula that preceded a second-half miss.
Following Stover’s field goal, the Ravens were driving and potentially poised to retake the lead when middle linebacker Gary Brackett baited Flacco into an interception.
Brackett pretended to blitz before retreating into pass coverage and picked off Flacco when he attempted to hit running back Ray Rice over the middle.
“It was a bad job going to Ray in that situation, but I didn’t see the guy,” Flacco said. “.. I didn’t really think the guy that ended up intercepting it was going to drop out the way he did, but it was a bad job by me. .. That’s a big play right there. We were in field goal range already, and we wanted to convert on the third down. At the same time, we’ve got to hold on to the ball and score some points to take the lead.
“I did a bad job of doing that. It’s a game that we thought we could have won. When you come down to the end like that and you come up short, because I made a dumb play and threw an interception in a tight situation, it’s definitely going to be a little frustrating right now.”
Confusion reigned on the ensuing Colts’ possession after the interception.
The Ravens thought they stopped wide receiver Reggie Wayne from gaining a first down.
So, Harbaugh called timeout to stop the clock before the officials had even measured the spot. He threw the red flag to call for an instant replay, but the ruling on the field of a first down was upheld.
So, the Ravens lost both of their final two timeouts during the sequence.
“I was trying to flip the timeout into a challenge, and they wouldn’t let me do it,” Harbaugh said. “They were right in not letting me do it. I tried to get too much done in that situation. That was a bad job by me, in that situation.”
The Ravens’ defense rallied and eventually stopped them.
However, Reed returned the punt and attempted to lateral it to rookie cornerback Lardarius Webb.
Webb wasn’t expecting Reed to do so, and Colts linebacker Freddie Keiaho recovered at the Ravens’ 40-yard line with 17 seconds remaining to allow Manning to run out the clock.
“I was surprised,” Webb said. “I thought he was going to go down. He likes to make the big play. That wasn’t the play that lost the game.
“Hey, man, he’s been through more than that. He’s a strong guy. Great players move on from things like that.”
The fumble was upheld after the replay assistant challenged whether Reed was down by contact before his ill-advised lateral.
Reed repeatedly declined interview requests afterward, saying, “I have to go to the trainer.”
Harbaugh said he has yet to speak to Reed about his decision.
“We haven’t had that conversation,” Harbaugh said. “He didn’t say anything about it. I haven’t talked to him about it. My thoughts on it? I don’t have any thoughts on it right now.”
The Ravens still have an opportunity to potentially earn a wild-card playoff spot, but have little margin left for error.
They may need to win five of their final six games in order to make it back to the postseason. They got a small boost to their dim playoff outlook when the Pittsburgh Steelers (6-4), who visit Baltimore next Sunday night, lost to the Kansas City Chiefs.
Three teams rank ahead of the Ravens for two wild-card spots: the Steelers, the Denver Broncos (6-4) and the Houston Texans (5-4) and the Ravens own a tiebreaker over Denver with a head-to-head win earlier this season.
“You can’t get in the playoffs unless you win 10 games or more, and 10 games don’t automatically put you in the AFC,” Mason said. “So, we know the road ahead of us. We have to win every game from here on out, point blank. However, you cut it, dice it, we need to win every game from here on out.
“Anyone that thinks that we don’t have to win all these games from here on out, they’re lying to themselves. If you want to call it pressure, then it’s pressure. No more excuses, we need to win football games. That’s what it boils down to.”
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.