Losing back-to-back games — on the final play of regulation last week and in overtime on Sunday — is no way to begin your stretch run. It's also no way to bolster your argument for consideration as an elite quarterback.
That's where the Baltimore Ravens and Joe Flacco find themselves after a 31-28 loss to the Washington Redskins at FedEx Field on Sunday. They're good enough to be contenders and good enough to be on the verge of victory, but not good enough to seal the deal, at least not lately.
In a game heavy on playoff atmosphere and postseason implications, the seasoned Ravens figured to have the edge. These situations are as normal to them beginning contests with midfield coin tosses. But it was the upstart Redskins who found a way to win, while the more-experienced Ravens failed late for the second consecutive week.
"It's how you start, not how you finish," said halfback Ray Rice, who rushed for 121 yards and a touchdown that gave Baltimore an 8-point lead with 4:47 left. "I don't want to be known as 'If we get them close in the fourth quarter, the Ravens will give it away.' That's never been us and it's not going to be us."
Don't tell the Pittsburgh Steelers, who scored 10 unanswered fourth-quarter points in Week 13, including a go-ahead field goal as time expired. And don't tell the Redskins, who marched 85 yards in 13 plays — the last two engineered by backup quarterback Kirk Cousins — for a touchdown, before Cousins ran in the game-tying two-point conversion.
Flacco was virtually flawless in the first half, completing 10 of 13 passes for 127 yards and three TDs. But one miss came back to haunt the Ravens. Wideout Torrey Smith was wide open as he streaked downfield on the Ravens' second possession, but the ball was underthrown, giving Redskins cornerback Josh Wilson an opportunity to make up ground and deflect the pass.
Flacco was at the center of two crucial miscues after intermission. He was sacked for a strip-fumble after Baltimore received the second-half kickoff. On the ensuing possession, Flacco threw an ill-advised pass in the red zone while under heavy pressure from linebacker Ryan Kerrigan. Nose tackle Barry Cofield tipped the pass and linebacker London Fletcher caught it at the 13-yard line.
"That was my fault," said Flacco. "I was enamored with giving Ray [Rice] something over the middle because they were in straight man. But I just have to get the ball out of my hand."
The Ravens have enjoyed tremendous success this season when they put the ball in Flacco's hand. Coach John Harbaugh has gone practically Air Coryell this season, as Baltimore is averaging 34 pass attempts per game, on pace for a career-high by Flacco. The transition has been necessary because while Rice remains a reliable offensive weapon, the defense isn't nearly as stout as recent vintage.
Flacco considers himself an elite quarterback but he's yet to meet the Super-Bowl-or-bust standard. Two losses in AFC championships and two losses in AFC divisional games is the brunt of his argument, which doesn't cut it for most observers outside his locker room.
"Joe is fighter like the rest of our players," Harbaugh said. "I'm not going to assess him or give a grade right now. I'm sure all of us are going to grade ourselves pretty hard. But we win as a team and lose as a team. Joe did some great things out there, put up some points. We all need to do better and find ways to finish games."
They need to do so quickly, with Denver, the New Giants and Cincinnati coming up. Baltimore (9-4) received some help Sunday in its quest for the AFC North title when the Bengals and Steelers lost, keeping them two games behind in the win column. But Rice isn't interested in what the division rivals are up to.
"Whatever help Cincinnati and Pittsburgh give us, appreciate it, but that's not what we're looking for," Rice said. "We're trying to get better each week and make our own playoff run. We don't need anybody else's help."
But with a two-game losing streak in heartbreaking fashion, they definitely need something.
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