Three games into the season, and the Ravens were getting some national respect. ESPN.com put the Ravens at the top of the weekly power rankings. National analysts were talking the Ravens up as a Super Bowl contender. And with three regular season wins following an undefeated preseason, fans were beginning to believe the season could have that Super Bowl feeling. However, reality was about to kick in in the next three games. The schedule was about to get tougher, as the formidable New England Patriots, a resurgent Cincinnati Bengals squad and the undefeated Minnesota Vikings were next up. Also, unknown at the time, the flaws that would ultimately doom the season to a less successful finish than the one before it were about to rear their ugly heads.
The Ravens rolled into Foxborough to take on Tom Brady and the Patriots. Most fans looking at the schedule had this game pegged as a loss, even with the great start to the season. But what made it so painful is the way the Ravens lost. The Ravens were able to move the ball against the Patriots with nothing approaching a balanced offense: 47 passes with only 17 runs-even as Ray Rice gained over one hundred yards-had to make fans scratch their heads. Where was the three-headed monster? The fact that the Ravens had the ball with a chance to score the game-tying and winning points late in the fourth quarter also had to be a shock to Ravens watchers who were used to winning games with defense. When Mark Clayton dropped the fourth-down pass that left the Ravens short of a first down that would’ve continued the drive, many fans groaned, but accepted the defeat. The defense struggled defending the pass, but was able to make some plays. However, there were some questionable and untimely penalties, particularly a roughing the passer penalty that Brady called for (and received) that had the conspiracy theorists out in force.
If the game against the Patriots brought the conspiracy theorists out, the last Bengals drive in the next game had them howling even louder in protest. The Ravens let this one get away by allowing the Bengals to drive down the field late to score the game winning points. It was at this point, as if there were any doubt, that the defense was indeed having problems. Cedric Benson became the first runner in forty games to gain over one hundred yards against the vaunted run defense. During the drive, several costly penalties contributed to the Bengals march, including one personal foul for unnecessary roughness against Ray Lewis. This was the first game that the offense truly struggled; needing only a couple of first downs to run out the clock and preserve a 14-10 win, they could not get them. With 2:28 left in the game and the Ravens facing third down and 10, Joe Flacco missed a wide open Clayton on a play that would’ve gone for a touchdown. If that play was made, the Bengals last drive is irrelevant.
The offense had cooled off since the New England game and took the better part of two and one half quarters to get back to life against the Minnesota Vikings. Brett Favre and the Viking offense started the game strafing the Ravens’ defense at will, as the home team opened up a 14-0 lead almost as soon as the game started. However, Flacco began to come alive when the game looked all but lost and brought the Ravens almost all the way back. Ray Rice emerged in this game as the offense’s best playmaker; he did things during the comeback that made you stand up and appreciate his talents for breaking tackles, making people miss and making receptions out of the backfield. But for the defense not being able to make key stops when necessary, and the missed potential game-winning field goal by Steven Hauschka, the Ravens losing streak would’ve ended at two games.
After starting the season increasing expectations of greatness, the losses had fans questioning what was wrong with the Ravens. Sadly, the missed tackles, penalties and mistakes, and up and down offense would show up time and again over the course of the remaining games of the season.