As Dustin Hopkins kicked the game winning field goal to send the Cleveland Browns to 6-3 and the Baltimore Ravens to 7-3, I’m sure most fans had the same reaction – not surprised. I certainly wasn’t. After the Ravens failed to recover an Odafe Oweh strip sack on Cleveland’s final possession, most fans, including myself, knew Cleveland would win.
While most teams would feel good about having an opponent with a decimated offensive line and injured quarterback in 2nd & 19, the Ravens did not. But why? The Browns offense, while good, doesn’t strike the same fear into teams as Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs or Joe Burrow and the Bengals.
As was proven once again on Sunday, the issue with blowing leads when the team has had an 80% or greater chance of winning is systemic. The pattern isn’t identifiable because it’s always something different. In the Colts game, it was a lack of game management, penalties, and fumbles. In the Steelers game it was drops and late turnovers. And on Sunday, it was a late pick-6 and a failure to tackle multiple players on the Browns offense. We all wish the trend was consistent so we could point to one area and say, “this is why the Ravens keep blowing leads”. Unfortunately it’s not.
Do I expect the Ravens to win every single game? Of course not. However, dating back to this time last year, the Ravens were in position to win at least seven extra games over the last two seasons if it wasn’t for a complete and utter breakdown in at least two facets of the game.
It began last year against the Miami Dolphins. The Ravens jumped out to a 21 point lead in the first half before suffering one of the worst full-blown coverage collapses in one half that I can recall. Then the Giants. With the game seemingly in hand, Lamar Jackson committed two turnovers, eventually resulting in two Giants touchdowns and the surrendered victory. The Ravens also blew leads against the Bills, Jaguars, and Steelers. By the half-way mark in the season, it was clear the team wasn’t going deep in the playoffs, with or without Lamar Jackson.
Unfortunately, the trend has carried into 2023. In each of their three losses, the Ravens were ahead with a massive win probability late in the game. They were able to halt a late comeback attempt by the Bengals in Week 2, but still let their division foe hang around too long. Simply put, this team doesn’t play four quarters. In blowout wins against the Seahawks and Lions, the Ravens were so far ahead that they didn’t get the chance to hand the game over to the opposition. Even in the Cardinals game, the Ravens allowed Arizona to stick around and make it close. The book on the Ravens is out - if you can hang with them until the fourth quarter, you will have a chance to win. At this point, it can’t be denied.
The frustrating part of this story is that, on paper, the Ravens are one of the more dominant NFL teams in recent memory. Through 10 weeks, they are third all-time in least amount of time trailed - the other teams started 10-0. They have the highest point differential in the league. They have the highest DVOA in the league. All of these statistics are as mind boggling as they are infuriating. On Sunday, they led the game for 59 minutes and 40 seconds. They lost. It’s almost like the team is trying to find new ways to blow games. New ways to create statistics that seem impossible. While the team continues down this road, everyone is looking for answers. Why is this happening? Who is to blame? Although the circumstances surrounding each loss are different, it boils down to two people: John Harbaugh and Lamar Jackson.
At the end of the day, there will be fluctuations amongst every NFL team. Injuries will occur, defenses will have bad games; receivers and linemen as well. However, the difference is they aren’t getting paid to bear the weight of expecting to be great week in and week out, or at least not like the quarterback. When you are getting paid near the top of your position, the expectation is to find ways to overcome bad performances by other players. Whether it be Brady and Belichick, Mahomes and Reid, or any other successful coach-quarterback combo, the ability to win games late typically boiled down to the quarterback and the coach making or calling enough plays to get it done. We’ve seen the Chiefs in precarious situations many times throughout the years. Very rarely do Mahomes and Reid not figure out a way to win the game, regardless of the players around them. While Jackson has put the team on his shoulders more times than we can count, that is the expectation for a player of his caliber. When he does it, it’s expected. When he doesn’t, it’s a failure. Over the last two seasons, Jackson leads the NFL in fourth quarter and overtime turnovers. That cannot happen for a player of his talent level.
As far as John Harbaugh’s role to play in this mess, it is his job to understand game flow and get his team prepared to play four quarters of football. Situationally, the Ravens are not a good team and haven’t been for a while now. That falls on the shoulders of the entire coaching staff. On Sunday, the play calling from Mike Macdonald and Todd Monken was not good situationally. Macdonald dropped the defense into soft coverage for most of the second half, allowing Watson to methodically move the ball down the field. Monken somehow limited running back Keaton Mitchell to three carries and made some questionable play calls late in the game. While they both have their share of weight to pull, it is Harbaugh’s job to override certain decisions and ensure the team closes the game.
Two separate times, the Ravens were in position to kick a field goal. One of them was blocked after Jackson missed Zay Flowers on a deep pass and the other was after a Jackson sack, forcing them out of field goal range. While I respect the aggression, the coaches need to understand how difficult touchdowns are to come by against a defense like Cleveland’s. If the Ravens played for the field goal in either instance, they probably emerge victorious. This is the fundamental issue. Either the coach mismanages the situation or the quarterback doesn’t execute. On the missed Flowers touchdown, both were the case. While other factors have been at play in their blown leads, more times than not, either Jackson commits a costly turnover or Harbaugh mismanages a crucial situation.
The Ravens have a lot of good things going for them at the moment. They are 7-3 and still sit atop the division. The hope going forward is that the team and coaches recognize that being up two scores doesn’t mean the game is over. As soon as teams sense the momentum has shifted late in the game, the Ravens might as well throw in the towel. Either the offense is too conservative or they turn the ball over. Up until this week, the defense had been a stalwart. Now, it looks like a team like Cleveland can bully them if they get the run game going.
The Ravens currently have a ninety percent chance of making it to the playoffs, but they’ve also had a ninety percent chance of victory in multiple losses this year. This is a very talented football team with all of the ingredients to be a champion. However, if they think they can coast through the first three quarters and win, they will suffer a quick playoff exit.
With the loss against Cleveland, Thursday night’s game against the Bengals just became a near must-win for the Ravens. Cincinnati appears to be down their two best edge defenders, Trey Hendrickson and Sam Hubbard, not to mention wide receiver Tee Higgins. If the Ravens can’t take advantage or blow another lead, it might be time to have a conversation about the direction of the football team and its head coach.