Flawed Ravens scramble to remain in playoff hunt
The Baltimore Ravens are still in the AFC playoff picture despite several significant flaws, most of which were exposed in their latest and most telling fourth-quarter collapse of the season. Baltimore blew a 21-point lead in the second half against the Houston Texans on Monday night before Josh Wilson's 12-yard interception return for a touchdown in overtime secured a breathtaking 34-28 victory.
With three weeks left, Baltimore (9-4) is a game behind Pittsburgh in the AFC North and appears on course to earn at least a wild-card berth and a third straight trip to the post-season.
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In the weeks ahead, the Ravens will seek to correct their flaws instead of hoping to survive in spite of them.
"As long as we're winning football games, we'll be happy," quarterback Joe Flacco said. "We're going to work on things to get better. But we're a 9-4 football team right now and we're feeling pretty good about ourselves."
Before hosting the defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints on Sunday, the Ravens must correct several imperfections that could become bigger issues in the weeks ahead. After a 103-yard kickoff return by David Reed gave Baltimore a 28-7 lead at the start of the third quarter, the Ravens made only five first downs the rest of the way. The offense did not score after halftime, Flacco was sacked five times overall and the running game averaged only 2.6 yards per carry.
The esteemed Ravens defense usually has a way of making up for the shortcomings of the offense. But against Houston, Ray Lewis and Co. allowed drives of 70, 42, 99 and 95 yards in the second half. Matt Schaub threw for 393 yards, Arian Foster ran for 100 yards and the Texans finished with a whopping 489 yards in offense. Most importantly, Baltimore lost a fourth-quarter lead for the eighth time this season and second week in a row. The Ravens are 4-4 in those games.
It was the 10th game this season for Baltimore decided by seven points or fewer. The Ravens have won six of them.
"One thing I know is that we have been battling through adversity all year," running back Ray Rice said. "We've always had these tough games all year and it's great to see us squeak it out."
■ Nine teams have been eliminated from playoff contention as the NFL heads into Week 15. Out of the running are Washington, Minnesota, Detroit, Dallas and Carolina in the NFC. Gone from the AFC are Buffalo, Cincinnati, Cleveland and Denver. On the verge of elimination are Houston (5-8), Tennessee (5-8) and Arizona (4-9). Although San Francisco also is 5-8, it trails first-place St. Louis and Seattle by only one game in the NFC West with three remaining. New England (11-2) has secured a playoff berth.
Metrodome won't be ready for Monday
The Metrodome's torn roof won't be repaired in time for the Minnesota Vikings' Monday night game with the Chicago Bears, stadium officials said Tuesday as the team prepared to play at the University of Minnesota's TCF Bank Stadium instead. Workers at the university began the daunting task of removing snow from the outdoor TCF Bank Stadium, which was buried after the weekend snowstorm dumped more than 17 inches in Minneapolis and caused the Metrodome's Teflon roof to collapse early Sunday.
"We're going to do the best we can to get as prepared as we can for Monday night's game," said Scott Ellison, assistant athletics director for facilities at the University of Minnesota.
"The Vikings are committed to ensuring a home game in Minnesota for our fans," the team said.
QB-thin Vikings still counting on Favre
Brett Favre's career isn't quite over yet. The Minnesota Vikings have been eliminated from playoff contention, but they still need someone to play quarterback for their final three games. Interim coach Leslie Frazier said the 41-year-old Favre is his choice — and he may be back in time for Monday night's game against Chicago.
Favre was feeling better Tuesday, according to Frazier, after his NFL-record streak of starting 297 straight regular-season games ended Monday with him on the sideline at Ford Field in Detroit during Minnesota's loss to the Giants. He is nursing a sprained throwing shoulder and a numb hand, but an ultrasound on Favre's neck and shoulder revealed no nerve damage, Frazier said. For now, the Vikings won't end Favre's season, and perhaps his storied career, by putting him on injured reserve.
Frazier actually sounded more optimistic about Favre's availability for the division-leading Bears than he did about the status of backup Tarvaris Jackson, who started in the 21-3 loss to the Giants. Jackson left the game twice with an injury, the second time because of a turf toe problem that Frazier said has put his availability "in jeopardy" for this week.
■ All-Pro running back Adrian Peterson, held to 26 yards on 14 carries by the Giants, bruised his knee in a collision with Jackson but is going to be fine, Frazier said.
Ankle injury ends season for Bills' Evans
Buffalo Bills receiver Lee Evans was placed on season-ending injured reserve on Tuesday, two days after sustaining a sprained ankle in Buffalo's win over Cleveland. Evans was hurt at the end of Jonathan Stupar's 35-yard reception in the second quarter. Evans was attempting to hold off a defender from catching Stupar from behind when he fell awkwardly while appearing to trip over his teammate's leg. The 2004 first-round pick had a disappointing season, finishing with 37 catches for 578 yards and four touchdowns. It's his lowest reception total of his career, and seven less than his previous low of 44 catches in 2009. Evans' streak of playing in 109 straight games, including 71 consecutive starts, will be snapped on Sunday when the Bills (3-10) play at the Miami Dolphins (7-6). The 71 total was the second-longest active streak for a receiver, behind Indianapolis' Reggie Wayne (126).
■ The Washington Redskins cut the holder who mishandled the extra point attempt in their one-point loss to Tampa Bay. The Redskins waived punter Hunter Smith and replaced him with Sam Paulescu, who takes over as both punter and holder. Smith let the snap go through his hands Sunday when the Redskins were attempting the extra point that would have tied the game with 9 seconds to play against the Buccaneers. Tampa Bay won 17-16. Smith was also struggling as a punter. His gross average of 40.5 ranks 30th in the NFL, and his net average of 33.7 yards ranks 31st.
■ The Seahawks placed wide receiver Deon Butler on injured reserve. Butler suffered a broken right leg catching a 2-yard touchdown pass late in Seattle's 40-21 loss to San Francisco on Sunday.He finished the season with 36 catches for 385 yards and four TDs.
Owensboro loses minor-league team
The Kentucky Bisons are no more — in Owensboro, at least. In an e-mailed letter to members of the Messenger-Inquirer sports department on Monday, Bisons owner James Sills conceded he was pulling the plug on the professional team's 2010-11 season, after two years in Owensboro. Under the direction of head coach Otis Key, the Bisons won the refurbished American Basketball Association (ABA) championship in 2008-09 and finished as the league's tournament runner-up last season.
In the end, Sills said there simply wasn't enough advertising revenue to carry on. "I could never make anyone's business advertising budget, even for $300 to $500, without which, we can't take our team on the road to play away games," he said. "We had a hard enough time breaking even at home with all the entertainment we tried to provide."
The last word
Even as NFL data shows that the number of reported concussions has increased more than 20 percent from 2009, and more than 30 percent from 2008, the guys who grind out the tough yards — and some of those who tackle them — say knocking heads is inevitable. Their overriding sentiment: let's just play. Said Atlanta Falcons fullback Ovie Mughelli:
"I hope they don't start fining the running backs for leading with their helmets because the linebackers and tackles definitely are not defenseless players. If they can't get out of the way, that sounds like a personal problem for them."