BALTIMORE — There was no offensive coordinator to hide behind, no one he wanted to look at or listen to. So with the Denver Broncos celebrating the gift he had given them, Joe Flacco laid flat on the ground and buried his face where it fell, directly into the goal line.
“I just made a mistake,” Flacco said. “There’s no other way to put that.”
This was the low point of Sunday afternoon for the Baltimore Ravens, the moment Denver’s Chris Harris crossed into the end zone with a 98-yard return of Flacco’s poor pass that put the Ravens behind 17-0 just before halftime. But following the 34-17 debacle at the hands of the Broncos, it is fair to ask: Will it be the low point of the Ravens’ season?
“There is no sugarcoating,” running back Ray Rice said. “We’re banged-up a bunch. It’s late in the year. It’s not getting any easier. We either put it on our shoulders, get it fixed, or we’ll weed ourselves out like the other teams in the league.”
This was the Ravens’ third straight loss, so a 9-2 start and complete ownership of the AFC North has sputtered to 9-5 with doubts about the future even as they clinched a playoff berth after Pittsburgh lost in overtime to Dallas, and boos for Flacco and the offense at M&T Bank Stadium. The defense got injured linebacker Terrell Suggs back in spurts Sunday, but it made little difference against Denver quarterback Peyton Manning, receiver Eric Decker and running back Knowshon Moreno.
Manning wasn’t exceptionally sharp – just 17 of 28 for 204 yards — but he still threw a 51-yard touchdown pass to Decker that essentially put the game out of reach in the third quarter, part of a lead that grew to 31-3. That was just one of Decker’s eight catches for 133 yards. Moreno carried 22 times for 118 yards and a score.
“All we can control,” Manning said, “is how we play.”
It is the Broncos, at 11-3, who look to be the team preparing for a deep run in the AFC playoffs. Sunday was their ninth straight win, and among their most thorough. Their last loss came in Week 5 to New England. But the way Manning’s offense and Coach John Fox’s defense look now, a rematch of that Patriots-Broncos game wouldn’t be surprising in the AFC championship game.
“We just want to continue to build momentum toward the playoffs, get better,” said veteran receiver Brandon Stokley, “and play our best football in January.”
The Ravens responded to back-to-back, three-point losses – including a crushing overtime defeat at Washington last week — by firing offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, who essentially took the fall for some poor performances by Flacco, particularly on the road. With Jim Caldwell — Manning’s former offensive coordinator and later head coach in Indianapolis — installed as Cameron’s replacement, the Ravens went just 1 for 12 on third down.
“It tests our leadership,” Flacco said. “It tests our toughness. We believe we have a tight locker room. It’s going to test that.”
On the Ravens’ first possession, Flacco fumbled the ball away. On their next four, they went three and out. Their initial first down came midway through the second quarter. Rice, the featured back, gained just 38 yards on 12 carries.
“We had some self-inflicted issues,” Coach John Harbaugh said.
Yet with the first half dwindling away, Baltimore was in position to make it a game, trailing just 10-0. Flacco found Jacoby Jones with a 43-yard heave to give the crowd some hope, then hit Torrey Smith to give the Ravens first and goal from the 4.
With the clock ticking toward half a minute remaining, the Ravens opted not to use one of their two remaining timeouts, but rather ran a play with no huddle. Flacco looked to his left and fired a quick pass in the direction of receiver Anquan Boldin. “I was surprised Flacco threw it,” veteran Denver cornerback Champ Bailey said. The ball never reached Boldin, because Harris stepped in front, and then had no one in front of him.
“It’s probably a 14-point swing,” Manning said. “… Big play, big swing in the momentum.”
With the 71,317 Ravens partisans watching in disgust, Flacco tried to run down Harris. Inside the 5, he dove at Harris’s feet. It was too late, and all that was left to do was stick his face in the ground, with little will and less reason to get up.
“We’re a 9-5 football team,” Flacco said, “and it feels like we’re 0-14 right now.”