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Mike Preston: Ravens’ loss is John Harbaugh’s gain in preparation for playoff run | COMMENTARY

The Ravens lost, but they also won.

It’s just not because they came away from a 17-10 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers in Saturday’s regular-season finale without any major injuries, but the setback will serve as a major learning tool for coach John Harbaugh.

Harbaugh was already in teaching mode immediately after the loss before an announced crowd of 70,355 at M&T Bank Stadium.

“I thought we played really hard. I thought we played tough,” Harbaugh said. “We didn’t play great by any stretch. We can certainly stop the run better, [and] we gave up the big pass play. I thought the pass rush was really good, and the coverage was good for the most part except for one play.

“Offensively, I thought we fought. I thought ‘Snoop’ [quarterback Tyler Huntley] out there fought and played hard and the circumstances — the rain and the stuff like that and the wind — I thought he made some really good throws. We ran the ball OK.”

And those two fumbles?

“We turned the ball over a couple of times and just gave them opportunities to score points, that was it,” he said. “We take that into the playoffs. We already know that, and we understand how to win, but it’s a nice little reminder that you have to protect the football to win games.”

Agreed.

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That’s been the story of the Ravens (13-4) whenever they have lost this season. It’s the case for just about every team in the NFL, but few teams can dominate opponents the way the Ravens do. They physically mauled the Seattle Seahawks, Detroit Lions and Miami Dolphins.

Even when they lose, they control the action. That happened in a 22-19 overtime loss to the Indianapolis Colts in Week 3, as well as another 17-10 defeat to the Steelers in Week 5 when they dropped seven passes, including three in the end zone.

So while they could have beaten rival Pittsburgh (10-7) on Saturday in a game that would have all but knocked the Steelers out of playoff contention, the loss allowed them to refocus and regain an edge.

The Ravens needed this. They had won six games in a row and 10 of their past 11. They had outscored their previous three opponents 112-45 following a 37-31 overtime win over the Los Angeles Rams on Dec. 10.

The Ravens weren’t in a sour mood in the locker room after the game, but they’ve gotten the message. They gave up a 71-yard touchdown pass from Mason Rudolph to Diontae Johnson on the first play of the fourth quarter that gave the Steelers a 14-7 lead. Then running back Gus Edwards fumbled at the Ravens’ 27-yard line with 7:19 left and Pittsburgh recovered.

Nine plays and 25 yards later, Chris Boswell kicked a 25-yard field goal with 3:13 remaining and that was virtually the end of the game.

“[I] can’t dwell on it, even though you wanted to go out there and send [the Steelers] home,” Ravens linebacker Patrick Queen said. “Now, they have a chance to be in the playoffs, so it definitely stings a little bit. At the end of the day, we’ve written a lot of pages in our book right now that settles up pretty good right now.

“We have a week to prepare. Then, [we] find out who we have to play [in the playoffs], and then we go into that. So, nobody is hanging their head or anything. If we see those guys again, we’ll be ready.”

That’s the important part of Saturday’s result. The Ravens were clearly the better team, but they played without starting quarterback Lamar Jackson and other starters such as middle linebacker Roquan Smith, safety Kyle Hamilton and cornerback Marlon Humphrey.

It was virtually the junior varsity.

The Ravens stayed in the game for most of the contest but they didn’t have Pittsburgh’s running game, intensity or sense of urgency. The Steelers needed the win, and that was their driving force.

The Ravens wanted to win and push their nemesis out of the playoff race, but that was secondary. They earned the right to gain home-field advantage in the playoffs, get a first-round bye and rest players until the divisional round.

Mission accomplished.

Even if the Steelers get into the postseason, they aren’t going far. Their quarterback has no pocket awareness, and they’ve lost star outside linebacker T.J. Watt for some time because of a reported mild knee sprain.

The Ravens, though, do have some weaknesses. Their offensive tackles, Morgan Moses and Ronnie Stanley, were beaten badly Saturday. The run defense was soft again as the Steelers, led by running back Najee Harris, had 155 yards on 39 carries.

Safety Marcus Williams looks slow and out of place again, but at least the Ravens have two weeks to prepare. They’ll be rested and everyone should be healthy for the playoffs.

Unlike in 2019, when the Ravens had the AFC’s No. 1 seed and lost to the Tennessee Titans in the divisional round, Jackson has four more years of experience and the Ravens have veterans such as receivers Odell Beckham Jr. and Nelson Agholor and outside linebacker Kyle Van Noy, who have won Super Bowl titles with other teams.

And now, the Ravens probably got their edge back.

If not, Harbaugh will remind them.