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Ravens preach patience after collapsing twice in first month of 2022 NFL season

BALTIMORE -- In the locker room after the Ravens' 23-20 loss to the Buffalo Bills on Sunday, defensive tackle Calais Campbell asked a reporter for a few minutes before publicly addressing the painful defeat. 

The 15th-year veteran casts a long shadow within the locker room not only because of his 6-foot-8 frame, but also his experience and leadership, and he wanted to make sure a young teammate kept everything in perspective after the Ravens squandered a three-score lead for the second time in as many home losses this season, falling to 2-2 on the year.

Campbell leaned in and spoke at a low decibel. He made a point of looking the player in the eyes. When done, he turned to the visitor and made a declaration for everyone to hear.

"Give them their respect," he said of the Bills, "but we're going to be a really good defense as we continue to improve. The biggest thing is just realizing it's the first quarter of the season and there's a lot of football to play so we have to look at how can we improve? How can we get better? But I'm not going to sit here and act like ..."

He paused before continuing.

"We're not going to panic and try to change everything," he said. "The group we have on defense, we're special. We've just got to continue to play football and get better and find a way to win football games. But I genuinely think we'll play this team again."

Campbell was referring to the playoffs, where the Bills (3-1) appear to be headed for the fourth time in five seasons. They have everything a Super Bowl contender should have: an MVP-caliber quarterback in Josh Allen, who on a rainy, blustery day threw for 213 yards and a touchdown while rushing for 70 yards and a score; a resilient defense that held Lamar Jackson to one touchdown -- three below his average -- and shut out the Ravens in the second half; and a solid group of special-teamers that includes kicker Tyler Bass, who was good on each of his three field-goal attempts, including the decisive 21-yarder as time expired.

Buffalo's performance said more about its championship makeup than any other game this season, considering the circumstances. The Bills were coming off a 21-19 loss to the Dolphins in which four Buffalo players departed with heat illness from playing on a 90-degree South Florida day where the humidity was 60 percent. The offense was on the field for 90 plays, and Allen admitted it was tough to breath. Rebounding from a game like that presents its own challenges, but Sunday was made even tougher because the Bills were facing a Ravens squad seeking to end a four-game home losing streak that tied for the longest in franchise history, not to mention distance itself from the defensive collapse that took place two weeks ago at home, where the team squandered a 28-7 halftime lead and lost 42-38 to the Dolphins.

For a quarter on Sunday, that performance seemed a distant memory as the Ravens put everything together. The offense was humming, scoring touchdowns on each of its first two possessions, followed by field goals on its next two possessions; and the defense was imposing its will by recording an interception and a fumble recovery on two of its first three series while forcing three-and-outs on four of its first five. The unit was so dominant it allowed only 63 yards through the first 28-plus minutes against an offense that, entering the game, had recorded 10 possessions with at least that many yards.

But the winds of change began blowing in the Bills' direction over the final two minutes of the first half, when Allen led them on a 76-yard march that concluded with a 4-yard touchdown pass to Isaiah McKenzie to make it 20-10. They carried that momentum into the third quarter, going 51 yards to set up a field goal, then 80 yards for the tying score, an 11-yard keeper by Allen. 

Conversely, a Ravens offense that has been so potent and so efficient this season began to buckle under the pressure. Jackson, who entered the game as the league leader with 10 touchdown passes and only two interceptions, threw picks on back-to-back possessions in the fourth quarter, both to safety Jordan Poyer. The second was particularly devastating, as it came from the Buffalo 2-yard line with just over 4 minutes to play.

Baltimore coach John Harbaugh could have kicked a short field goal to take the lead at that point, but he opted to go for the touchdown on fourth down. 

"I felt like it gave us the best chance to win the game because seven [points], the worst that happens is if they go down the field and score -- and I think we'll get them stopped -- but if they go down the field and score a touchdown, the worst thing that can happen is you're in overtime," he said. "But you kick a field goal there, now it's not a three-down game anymore, it's a four-down game. You're putting them out there, you're putting your defense at a disadvantage because they've got four downs to convert all the way down the field and a chance to again score seven, and then you lose the game on a touchdown."

The worst-case scenario, in Harbaugh's mind, was that Baltimore would be stopped on fourth down and the Bills would have to drive more than 50 yards for a shot at a field goal of 60-plus yards. But the play had an ominous feel from the start, as Jackson took the snap and began to backpedal with Buffalo's Shaq Lawson closing in from Jackson's left, and Greg Rousseau closing from his right.

That blocked his vision and caused him to hold the ball a second longer than he wanted. He did not see Devin Duvernay initially come open in the back right corner of the end zone, and his delay in delivering the ball allowed Poyer to close from the middle of the end zone for the interception.

"If I would have seen him right off the bat, that would have been a touchdown," said Jackson, who finished 20 of 29 for 144 yards and a touchdown, with two interceptions. "The lineman had his hands up and was bull-rushing a little bit and got in my peripheral. So, I couldn't really see what was going on and the play was breaking down. I tried to get back some more but it was too late."

Said Harbaugh: "It didn't turn out (successfully), unfortunately, and we lost the game. So, hindsight, you could take the points. But if you look at it analytically, you understand why we did it." 

One thing the Ravens did not envision was the Bills going on a 12-play, 77-yard drive for the decisive score, or that Buffalo would face only one third down on the march (which Allen converted with a 20-yard completion to tight end Dawson Knox).

A key play in the sequence was a roughing the passer penalty against defensive back Brandon Stephens, who came on the blitz and hit Allen after the quarterback had released the ball. Multiple Ravens players and coaches said after the game they did not see a forcible hit to the head or neck area, but referee Jerome Boger disagreed.

Asked afterward if he was confident in what he saw, Boger told a pool reporter: "That is correct."

At that point, with Buffalo in field-goal range at the Baltimore 26 with 2:03 to play, the clock became as big an opponent as the Bills. And when Buffalo drove to the Ravens' 11 with 1:50 to play, Harbaugh called for the defense to either force a strip or allow the touchdown. 

Outside linebacker Odafe Oweh thought he had a chance for a strip but wound up tackling running back Devin Singletary at the 3 after an 8-yard gain. One play later, Allen picked up the first down, which allowed Buffalo to burn the clock and kick the field goal.

"It's very disappointing to us," said safety Chuck Clark. "We were preaching at halftime, 'We've been in this situation before, and we have to finish it out.' So, I think we know what we did and didn't do. We have to finish."

The reasons they have not closed out games vary. Against Miami, injuries compromised the secondary and resulted in breakdowns that were illuminated by a deficient pass rush. Against Buffalo, they were hurt by key penalties on offense and defense, as well as an inability to contain Allen once he began leaning on his legs to extend plays and gain yards for first downs or the game-tying touchdown.

The good news, as Campbell stressed, is that the season remains young and the Ravens are no worse than they were at the start of the day, despite the loss. They are tied for the best record in the AFC North and are optimistic they are headed in the right direction. 

Running back J.K. Dobbins, who missed all of last season with a knee injury, looked as good as he has since returning this year, rushing for 41 yards on 13 carries and gaining 22 yards, including a 1-yard touchdown, on four receptions. Jason Pierre-Paul also showed he has something to offer after being signed last week to help the pass rush. And former Pro Bowl left tackle Ronnie Stanley is expected to return soon after missing all but one game of last season because of injury.

Jackson, like Campbell, preached patience. He recalled the 2019 season, when the Ravens started 2-2 and were blown out, 40-25, in Week 4 by the Browns.

Baltimore responded by winning 12 in a row. So, perspective.

But if the Ravens hope to make that type of run again, or simply be legitimate contenders, there is work to be done. At the top of the list is their need to finish games. Knowing it is one thing. Doing it, that remains to be seen.

Follow Jim Trotter on Twitter.

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