One loss? Or is Joe Flacco flawed?

BALTIMORE -- It was one loss.

That was Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh's message after his team lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers 23-20 on Sunday.

One loss does not define a season and will not define this Ravens team, Harbaugh said.

He is right, but one win would have meant so much. Had the Cincinnati Bengals lost, it would have provided Baltimore with a second consecutive AFC North title and the first 10-2 record in team history, making it the earliest the Ravens would have clinched the division title. It would have extended the franchise's streak of division wins to 13 and home wins to 16. And it would have kept them within striking distance of Houston for the AFC's No. 1 overall seed for the postseason, which would be extraordinarily useful for a team that typically is lights out at home and shaky on the road.

The Ravens would have won with better play from quarterback Joe Flacco and an offense that is growing exceedingly predictable. They would have won if offensive coordinator Cam Cameron hadn't ignored Ray Rice after Rice ran for a 34-yard touchdown to give the Ravens a 20-13 lead with 4:50 left in the third quarter. Rice inexplicably touched the ball just once after that. They would have won if the offense produced more than five first downs in the second half and more than one in the fourth quarter.

Baltimore would have won -- should have won -- if Flacco had completed more than 47.1 percent of his passes and at least one of the four deep balls he threw to wide receiver Torrey Smith. Smith is exceptionally fast, but for some reason he is not asked to run sharp routes. He doesn't make hard cuts. Smith just runs vertically, and although he has tremendous speed, he doesn't create separation, and thus all four times Flacco went deep to Smith, the ball was either batted down or otherwise fell incomplete.

This Ravens team has all of the pieces. It has a solid quarterback, a talented running back, weapons on offense, a defense that is getting healthier and good coverage units on special teams. It is a mature team but not an old team. It is playoff tested. It is a team that should be able to make a run to the Super Bowl.

"Why not us," center Matt Birk said. "Someone's got to win it. Why not us?"

Exactly. But then the Ravens play a game like the one they played Sunday, and you wonder: Is the quarterback really good enough to slam the door on people, and can the offense be unpredictable enough to keep defenses honest? Can Baltimore get big plays from players who are wide open, the way Pittsburgh did repeatedly on Sunday? Can this team with this quarterback break through?


Flacco Everybody wants to act like the world's coming down on us when we've lost one game. ... We're 9-3. We're not 3-9.


-- Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco

Flacco can be ordinary, and in this day and age, ordinary doesn't win the Super Bowl. Extraordinary does.

After the game, Flacco said he felt like the Ravens "could have put up 30 or 40 points today," and he was right. They had their opportunities playing against a Steelers defense that got safety Troy Polamalu back but was missing linebacker LaMarr Woodley and was without cornerback Ike Taylor after the first series of the game.

Even so, the Ravens managed just 288 yards of offense. They converted just three of 11 third downs and had two turnovers. In the second quarter, Flacco threw an interception into triple coverage after escaping a potential sack. In the fourth quarter, he held onto the ball too long when his receivers were all covered, got sacked by James Harrison and lost the ball at the Baltimore 27-yard line. Four plays later, Charlie Batch found Heath Miller for a 7-yard touchdown to tie the game 20-20. The Steelers eventually won it on a 42-yard Shaun Suisham field goal with no time left on the clock.

"Everybody wants to act like the world's coming down on us when we've lost one game," Flacco said. "You have to realize you're a 9-3 football team. Obviously, we don't feel good about it right now, but we have to do all we can to come out and win next week. Like I said, we're 9-3. We're not 3-9. This isn't our ninth loss. It's our third. We don't think we should have lost it. [We] gave some things away, but that's the way it is. You lose football games sometimes, and you have to rebound and stand strong."

Now, the Ravens would be well advised to win at Washington on Sunday, because they finish the season with Denver and the New York Giants at home and Cincinnati on the road. They have a two-game lead in the AFC North and an opportunity still to get a first-round bye. But how far they go will be dictated by how well Flacco plays. In two games against the Steelers in the past three weeks, he hasn't played as well as Ravens coaches expected, even though Baltimore won at Pittsburgh on Nov. 18.

Nevertheless, Flacco is the leader of the team. How he goes, they go.

"He seems like one of those guys when I look back that just steadily keeps getting better," Birk said. "Joe is a big-time quarterback. He is. He is. I don't know why he's under the microscope. I guess all quarterbacks are, but this team, I don't know. He's a big-time quarterback, I think he's proven that. It really doesn't matter what everybody else thinks. We know how we feel about Joe as a player and as a man and as a person. He's a great guy. Great guy to play with. Great guy to block for, and we strongly, strongly believe in Joe's abilities."

Said wide receiver Anquan Boldin: "We'll be a force to be reckoned with in the playoffs."

The Ravens should be, but they also should have won at home against a Steelers team that was down to third-string quarterback Charlie Batch.

It was one game, sure, but had Joe Flacco been sharp, it was a game they would have won.