BALTIMORE -- Maybe that 4th-and-forever in San Diego is to blame. Maybe the Baltimore Ravens used up every last bit of their good karma, mojo or whatever you want to call it to convert on that act of desperation against the Chargers three weeks ago. Because as a team, they've looked spent ever since Ray Rice somehow gained those improbable 29 yards.
And now, as this completely foreign December free fall continues in Baltimore, there's desperation of a whole new order in Ravens-land. The kind that descends when a season starts slipping away from a presumed Super Bowl contender, and new, demoralizing thresholds keep getting crossed on a weekly basis.
Factually speaking, the Ravens are playoff-bound this season yet again, thanks to Pittsburgh's overtime loss at Dallas on Sunday, which clinched at least a wild-card berth. But it doesn't quite feel celebratory in Baltimore about now, because the Ravens looked like pretenders of the highest degree in being dominated by Denver 34-17 Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium, giving them their first three-game losing streak since early 2009.
It's not just that the red-hot and AFC West champion Broncos won their ninth straight game, it's how thoroughly they handled Baltimore in every facet of the game, humiliating a team unaccustomed to being humiliated, especially at home. Before Sunday, the Ravens hadn't lost consecutive games at home since 2007, the last season of head coach Brian Billick's tenure.
"We're a 9-5 football team, and it feels like we're 0-14 right now,'' said Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco, who threw a game-changing interception just before halftime, with cornerback Chris Harris returning it for a team-record 98-yard touchdown return and a 17-0 Denver lead. "It tests all of us. It tests our leadership. It tests our toughness. It's going to test a lot of things. It's going to test a lot of guys.''
The Ravens are failing every test in December so far, miserably. Baltimore is injury-depleted and grasping for answers on defense, and nothing about last week's firing of offensive coordinator Cam Cameron and the elevation of quarterbacks coach Jim Caldwell to the post did anything to fix the team's offensive issues. In the ultra-successful five-year John Harbaugh coaching era, this is as low as we've ever seen the Ravens plunge.
"It's been bad these last three weeks,'' said Baltimore safety Ed Reed, who spoke candidly and at length about the Ravens' problems in the gloom of the losing locker room. "As a player, as an individual, I'm embarrassed to come out and perform the way we have. As Ravens nation, as a player, I am embarrassed for our city.''
Baltimore had plenty to be red-faced about against the Broncos, suffering the worst home loss in Harbaugh's tenure. The Ravens didn't produce a first down until their sixth possession, trailed 31-3 entering the fourth quarter, and got blown out despite Peyton Manning (17 of 28 for 204 yards with one touchdown) playing considerably less than his best game of this MVP-caliber comeback season.
Baltimore's defense was extremely short-handed, missing its top three tacklers with injuries to safety Bernard Pollard, and linebackers Jameel McClain and Dannell Ellerbe. As a result, the Ravens got gashed for 118 yards and a touchdown on the ground by Denver running back Knowshon Moreno, and had a costly breakdown in coverage on a 51-yard Manning touchdown pass to receiver Eric Decker that made it 24-3 early in the third quarter.
BRONCOS' MORENO HURDLES RAVENS' REED
For a team that came into this month with an NFL-best 16-game home winning streak, and a penchant for playing great ball in December-January regular season games (14-7 under Harbaugh since 2008), Denver's beatdown of Baltimore served as a sobering wake-up call to a franchise that has been skillful in avoiding losing streaks.
"I felt like it was Christmas, and not for our side, man,'' Reed said. "We were in a giving mood. I don't have to go back and watch the tape to know we gave up a lot of things. Honestly, I thought we didn't play. We did not play football. That's why when I started this I said I was embarrassed, because I didn't think we played football as a whole, as a team.
"It's like you're out there lackadaisical. Like you're just better than everybody. [But] you're not better than everybody. You [have to] come play football every week. This is the NFL. You have to be on your game, and nobody's safe. That's why we lost a coach (Cameron) last week. There's got to be a sense of urgency for every man. There's got to be something to let every man know his job is on the line, including me. We have to start making corrections.''
And if those corrections are not made, and made quickly? "If we don't make them, it won't be a concern,'' Reed said. "It'll be us at home in January during the playoffs, where we don't want to be. It hits you in the heart, man, when you lose three straight and you had an opportunity to close out your division. It's terrible.''
Terrible is the only word that really fits Flacco's crushing interception, which he threw with Baltimore trailing 10-0 and facing a 1st-and-goal at the Broncos 4, with 30 seconds left in the half. The pass into the left flat, toward the front corner of the end zone, was intended for Anquan Boldin, but it never had a chance. In a move you could see coming from a mile away, Harris jumped the route, caught the ball and out-raced Flacco to the end zone, posting the longest interception return in Broncos team history.
At this point in his NFL career, with Flacco toward the end of his fifth season, he has to know he can't throw that pivotal pick in that situation. With all three timeouts remaining, the Ravens quarterback should have fired the ball into the stands and started over, his team still in position to make it a one-score game at halftime. Instead, in the blink of an eye, it was 17-0 Denver, and over.
"I just made a mistake, there's no other way to put that,'' Flacco said. "I wanted to have the fade, and I came down to the flat, and the guy undercut it, picked it and went the whole way. It's just a mistake on my part. That could have changed the game. It's a 14-point swing, and that really hurt us.''
I can't help but wonder if that blunder also really hurt Flacco's chances to be re-signed to a mega-deal with Baltimore in 2013, as most presume he will be, or even has to be? With Flacco's contract ending after this season, the Ravens' December fade is a particularly bad case of timing for the quarterback, who has not played consistently well enough to be included among the game's elite conversation -- despite his own lofty opinion of his track record.
Flacco also had a fumble lost on the Ravens' first drive of the game, and only some garbage-time drives in the fourth quarter allowed him to finish with statistics that looked as good as they did: 20 of 40 for 254 yards, with two touchdowns, one interception and a 76.5 passer rating. It was the third straight game Flacco lost a fumble, and his two costly turnovers helped the Broncos to 10 of their first 17 points. An injured and ice-cold team being led by an ice-cold quarterback is no way to enter the playoffs.
"[The Broncos] played a great game,'' Reed said. "They did exactly what they wanted to do, and they made plays.''
And for the third depressing week in a row, the Ravens didn't. After a 9-2 start, the division lead in the AFC North is down to one game, over Cincinnati (8-6), with the Steelers two games back at 7-7. And don't look now, Baltimore fans, but here comes another Manning at quarterback. The defending Super Bowl champion Giants and Eli Manning will visit next week. New York is pretty desperate itself, having lost 34-0 at Atlanta on Sunday to fall into a three-way tie for first place in the NFC East. After that, the Ravens close the regular season with another challenging game, at Cincinnati.
"We knew it was going to be tough,'' Reed said. "We knew this stretch was going to be tough. We knew at the end of the season we had Peyton coming in, we had Eli, we knew we had Cincinnati, we knew we had Pittsburgh twice in three weeks. So, we knew that. There's nothing to talk about. You have to play football. You have to come prepared to play every week, every year. Today wasn't that day for Baltimore.''
Sunday definitely wasn't the Ravens' day, and the longer this December desperation continues, it's looking like it's not going to be their year either. Harbaugh's baffled and embarrassed team isn't too familiar with this kind of existence, but the key is now not to get used to it. In Baltimore, the hope is the loss to Denver was as low as the Ravens can go.