OWINGS MILLS, Md. (AP) - During a season that ended with a narrow victory in the Super Bowl, the Baltimore Ravens repeatedly found a way to prevail in close games.
The Ravens registered eight wins by seven points or fewer, including playoff victories over Denver and San Francisco. In bolting to a 9-2 start, Baltimore won four in a row by a combined 13 points.
This year, the magic is gone. The defending champions' last four losses have come by a total of 14 points, leaving Baltimore (3-5) in a shaky spot at the midpoint of its schedule.
The Ravens enter Sunday's game against Cincinnati coming off three straight last-minute defeats - 19-17 to Green Bay, 19-16 against Pittsburgh and 24-18 at Cleveland.
''We've always played close games like this and we've been able to win them,'' quarterback Joe Flacco said Wednesday. ''This year, we haven't. ''
It is a shortcoming that has proven to be the difference between being in first place or third in the AFC North. Throw in a well-timed touchdown in each of those four games, and Baltimore is 7-1 instead of 3-5.
Of course, it doesn't work that way. But the Ravens have to find a way to reverse the trend if they are to reach the postseason for a sixth consecutive year.
''It's the National Football League. Most all the games are going to be close,'' coach John Harbaugh said. ''The difference is winning the close games. We've done that in the past. We have to do that again. That's what we have to figure out how to do. ''
The flaws that must corrected are easy to identify. Fixing the problems is not that simple.
Perhaps the best place to start is at the beginning. If the Ravens got off to a better start in games, they wouldn't be so pressed at the end to make up the difference. Baltimore has outscored the opposition 71-36 in the fourth quarter, but has only one first-quarter touchdown - in the opener against Denver - and has been outscored 92-63 before halftime.
''It definitely helps if you get off to a fast start,'' defensive tackle Haloti Ngata said. ''It changes the whole game. But we haven't been doing so.''
That's been a focus this week. Harbaugh said offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell has tweaked a few things and might alter the way he scripts the beginning of the game.
''Let's come out of the gates, let's find a way to get a lead,'' Harbaugh said. ''We have not been able to do that. I just talked to the team about that. Offensively, we've just got to get better. I've got a lot of optimism that we'll do it as a team. But we'd sure like to get it going and build some confidence and see our guys starting to make plays.''
The blame doesn't lie entirely on the offense. Although the defense has performed well despite losing Ray Lewis, Ed Reed and Bernard Pollard during the offseason, the unit has struggled in the fourth quarter. Cleveland rattled off a 15-play scoring drive in the closing minutes last Sunday before kicking a field goal with 14 seconds left; Pittsburgh launched a 39-yard drive before winning on a last-second field goal; and Green Bay held the ball for the final 2 minutes after the Ravens closed to 19-17.
''We have to get off the field and give our offense a chance,'' Harbaugh said.
Ngata said, ''In those last drives, we're making little mistakes. We haven't been able to finish. If we could just give our offense a chance to get back out there and score points, some of these close games would be different.''
The solution is, quite simply, to play better.
''You've just got to finish ballgames at the end, which means making the plays to win,'' guard Marshal Yanda said. ''The close games that we've lost, we just haven't made enough plays across the board. That's what it comes down to in the NFL.''
A year ago, the Ravens made the plays that counted.
''Before, if we were playing a lot of close games, we were giving ourselves chances and playing well,'' Flacco said. ''Eventually we were having a play for our way. This year, we just haven't played well enough to kind of earn the right to go win the game.''
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