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Ravens' heartbreaking loss underscores need for big-time playmakers

PITTSBURGH -- John Harbaugh lamented how the Baltimore Ravens went from a team on the brink of controlling the AFC North to one that is out of the playoff race in a matter of seconds.

"We are very close to being a very good football team," Harbaugh said after Sunday's 31-27 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers. "We can be a great football team, but we're not there yet."

What is keeping the Ravens from becoming that "very good football team" is big-time playmakers. Pittsburgh has explosive ones like Le'Veon Bell and Antonio Brown. Baltimore doesn't have consistent ones.

As the Ravens (8-7) finish out the season next Sunday at the Cincinnati Bengals, the need for players who can change games on a single catch or run has to become the priority.

The offense certainly did enough to beat the Steelers, and the blame ultimately goes to a defense that allowed touchdowns on the final three drives. Baltimore had been 43-8 (.843) under coach John Harbaugh when it scores 27 or more points.

But the Ravens had the potential to score plenty more if they had a Bell making tacklers miss or a Brown not being denied at the goal line. With their firepower, the Steelers marched on touchdown drives of 75, 90 and 75 yards, and it took them a total of 6 minutes, 35 seconds to do it.

The Ravens, meanwhile, plodded down the field. It worked for a while as Baltimore took up chunks of time. But the Steelers showed that the frenetic style often trumps the methodical one.

"They made big plays and got the ball in the end zone," Harbaugh said. "Obviously, that was the difference in the game."

The Ravens made it into Steelers territory on their first eight drives and came away with one touchdown. Baltimore averaged 8.7 yards per catch after just one of 30 receptions went over 17 yards. Ravens running backs Kenneth Dixon and Terrance West combined for 3.8 yards per carry. It would've been a different game if tight end Darren Waller held onto that touchdown pass in the fourth quarter or tight end Dennis Pitta was able to corral that one-handed touchdown catch.

"There were a couple of plays left out there. Probably five or 10 points left out there," Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco said. "They could have made a difference but you can say that about every game."

When Flacco was at his best, he had playmakers around him. In the 2012 playoffs, Flacco could throw to Anquan Boldin in the clutch, go deep to Torrey Smith or Jacoby Jones or hit Pitta (before his two hip surgeries) in the red zone. Flacco could also dump the ball off to running back Ray Rice and watch him convert fourth-and-29.

The Ravens have promising young players in Dixon, who ran hard, or Breshad Perriman, who has shown flashes when he holds onto the ball. But Baltimore is competing against the likes of the Oakland Raiders (who have Amari Cooper), Kansas City Chiefs (Tyreek Hill), Miami Dolphins (Jay Ajayi) and, of course, the Steelers.

Like Harbaugh said, the Ravens are a good team right now. They can finish with a winning record if they win in Cincinnati for the first time since 2011.

Still, if the Ravens want to become a perennial playoff team once again, they need players who can take over games like Bell and Brown.