The Ravens were able to cap off their first ever undefeated regular season at M&T Bank Stadium with a 20-14 win over the Cleveland Browns on Christmas Eve, but it could have come at an extremely high price as the team continues to fight for playoff position. The team comes out of their final contest of calendar year 2011 with the longest list of injuries they’ve had following any game all season. Let’s take a look at B’More’s walking wounded:
Cary Williams: Williams ran into teammate Pernell McPhee on a Seneca Wallace scramble in the first half, and left the game with a concussion. His status for Sunday in Cincinnati is still very much up-in-the-air.
Danell Ellerbe: The Ravens’ second concussion victim of the day, Ellerbe fell flat on his back while defending a short Cleveland pass. His head appeared to snap back and hit the turf; he wouldn’t see the field again Saturday. Like Williams, he will have to show significant improvement and pass the concussion tests to play next week.
Marshal Yanda: Yanda suffered a rib bruise in the first half, and was replaced by Andre Gurode. The Ravens running game was much less effective with the former Dallas center in there than with Yanda. Coach John Harbaugh said on Monday that Yanda is also dealing with a significant thigh bruise. Yanda is perhaps the toughest guy on the team (once famously letting himself get shocked with a cattle prod for entertainment purposes), so I’d have to think that if he can play, he will. However, he’ll probably be questionable at best.
David Reed: Reed, returning just his second kick since the debacle in Seattle, appeared about a step from breaking free for a touchdown after Josh Cribbs got the Browns on the board. Instead, his knee didn’t cooperate when he tried to cut, blew out, and he was placed on injured reserve Monday.
Cory Redding: Redding didn’t play Saturday, which came as a bit of a surprise. He was sorely missed, as Browns’ running back Peyton Hillis gashed Baltimore for his first 100-yard performance of the season. Redding tried to suit up, but didn’t feel up to it during warm-ups. He’ll likely be a game-time decision again in Cincy.
Throw in Anquan Boldin, who is already certainly out this week, and the Ravens find themselves in quite a precarious position. On one hand, they are absolutely in control of their own destiny; a win will give them the AFC North title, a first round playoff bye, and at worst a #2 seed. On the other, they are banged up, and a loss (coupled with a Pittsburgh win at Cleveland) will relegate them to the #5 seed, and they’ll be going on the road for the postseason starting the very next week.
Saturday’s game looked like it was going to be a perfect Christmas present for Ravens’ fans: a thorough beat-down of the inferior Browns from the opening whistle. They led 17-0 at the half, and 20-0 with 20 minutes left to play. However, the Browns would score 14 unanswered points, and the game ended up as much more of a nail-biter than it had any business being.
It was the Ravens’ special teams that opened the door for Cleveland, allowing Cribbs an 84-yard punt return touchdown late in the third. It was the third touchdown allowed by Baltimore’s special teams this year (2 punt, 1 kickoff), tying franchise highs set in 1998 and 2002. They had appeared to get their act together in recent weeks – the last score they allowed was way back in Week 8 against Arizona – so hopefully this isn’t a key problem coming back to life to rear its head at the worst possible time. Cribbs tormented the Ravens early in his career, but they had done a good job of containing him over the past few seasons.
The special teams opened the door, after which the inconsistent offensive and defensive units were both more than happy to do their best doorstop impressions.
On the ensuing drive, Joe Flacco displayed the kind of up-and-down play that has driven B’More fans crazy all season.
On 2nd-and-10 from the Cleveland 31, he scrambled for a 33-yard gain to the Browns’ 36-yard line. A field goal on that possession would have made it 23-7, a much more comfortable lead than 20-7. Instead, on 3rd-and-7 from the Cleveland 33, Joe woefully underthrew Lee Evans in the end zone, and was intercepted. Evans could have fought a little harder for the ball while it was in the air, but if Joe puts the ball in the back of the end zone, Evans is the only one with a chance at it.
It was at least Flacco’s second underthrow of the day, perhaps even his third. And when he did manage to put the ball on his receivers’ hands, they betrayed him. Tight end Ed Dickson, who caught a touchdown pass on the team’s opening drive, had two key drops, one on a third down. Torrey Smith misjudged a throw on the sideline on the play preceding the Cribbs touchdown, which would have – if caught – extended the Ravens’ drive.
And for all Flacco and the offense’s troubles, they weren’t the ones that allowed Cleveland to go 80 yards on the possession following the interception. That would be the defense, who also let the Browns to convert 3/3 third down tries on that drive.
Were it not for some woeful Cleveland clock mismanagement at the end of the first half, and a boneheaded play by rookie defensive tackle Phil Taylor following the two-minute warning, we could have very well had another Cincinnati situation on our hands, with the defense buckling in the second half and holding on for dear life in the waning moments.
It was far from a perfect performance on Saturday, but the end result is the same as if Baltimore had won the game 27-0 (like, say, Pittsburgh was able to do at home against the hapless rams, even without their quarterback): win in Cincy and get a week off and at least one home playoff game. They’ll certainly have to play a much more disciplined and consistent brand of football, but let’s also remember that the Bengals are but 1-6 against winning teams in 2011.
All eyes will be on the injury reports at Ravens’ practice this week – though Harbs is infamously vague on the status of his players, let’s all hope to see Yanda, Redding, Williams, and Ellerbe on the practice field.