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Ravens take step backward in season that started with high hopes

OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- If the measure of success is fulfilling expectations, the Baltimore Ravens have to consider this season a disappointment.

The satisfaction derived from reaching the playoffs for a second consecutive year and eliminating the New England Patriots in the opening round was blunted by the realization that the Ravens (10-8) regressed from last season. In 2008, they advanced to the AFC Championship Game with a rookie head coach and a first-year quarterback.

"Ultimately, I see it as we fell short of the goal we wanted to accomplish as a team and an organization. That was to win the Super Bowl," wide receiver Derrick Mason said. "If you don't win the Super Bowl, everything else is kind of meaningless in this sport."

Mason and his teammates cleared their lockers Monday, two days after their season ended with a deflating 20-3 loss to the Indianapolis Colts. Mason, 36, and safety Ed Reed, 31, both talked about retirement in the wake of the defeat.

"Ed Reed's 50-50, I'm more like 60-40," Mason said. "Nothing's definite but death and taxes. We'll see how it goes the next couple of weeks."

The Ravens had no intention of tossing their personal gear into huge, green trash bags this early in January.

"It's definitely abrupt," cornerback Domonique Foxworth said. "We didn't expect to be here, answering these kind of questions today."

It shouldn't have come as much of a surprise, because Baltimore's up-and-down ride in the playoffs mirrored a strange regular season in which the team was alternatingly invincible and mediocre.

The Ravens opened the season with three wins, then lost six of the next nine games. They seemed to right themselves by hammering the Detroit Lions and Chicago Bears by a combined 79-10 score, but followed that with an error-filled performance in a 23-20 defeat to the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Then, after qualifying for the playoffs on the final day of the regular season, Baltimore blew away New England 33-14. For an encore, the Ravens committed four turnovers and drew seven penalties in a dreadful showing at Indianapolis.

"I definitely wouldn't classify it as a successful season. It's very disappointing," Foxworth said. "I think we played a team we could have beat last weekend. But we didn't. It's still a little fresh, a little raw, so it doesn't feel like a successful season right now."

Said defensive back Chris Carr: "I feel like such a loser coming in today. We thought we could be in the Super Bowl."

The Ravens entered last weekend as one of just eight teams standing. Last year, however, they were among the final four.

"I think you look at it both ways," quarterback Joe Flacco said. "When you're trying to be nice to yourself, you say how good of a season we had. And when you're being realistic, I think we should have done better, and we could have done better."

The roster needs to be upgraded for the team to take the next step.

"We're not good enough," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said in the aftermath of the loss to the Colts. "We've got to find a way to get better."

Even if Mason returns, Baltimore's offense desperately needs a deep threat at wide receiver. Flacco got away with throwing just 10 times at New England, but when he was needed against Indianapolis, half of his 20 completions were to running backs.

Baltimore also needs depth on the offensive line and in the secondary, especially if Reed quits. The Ravens entered the postseason with four defensive backs, including starting cornerbacks Fabian Washington and Lardarius Webb, on injured reserve.

There were, however, plenty of positives this season -- most notably the performances by rookie offensive tackle Michael Oher and second-year running back Ray Rice. With Rice leading the way, the Ravens ranked fifth in the NFL in rushing yards. That made finishing 18th in passing a bit easier to take.

Rice was capably backed up by Willis McGahee, but it's uncertain if the Ravens are willing to spend big money on a No. 2 running back. McGahee wasn't about to guess which way general manager Ozzie Newsome was leaning.

"No doubt about it, I still got a lot left in my tank," McGahee said. "Right now, I'll let them handle it when the time comes."

Changes are coming, but the Ravens have no reason to go into overhaul mode. A few tweaks here and there ought to do it.

"I would say it's a matter of sharpening what we've got," Foxworth said. "I mean, it's not a coincidence that we made pretty deep runs in the playoffs the past couple of seasons. You can't do that without the talent that you need in this league.

"I think we have championship talent here. We just need to get a little bit better. Or a lot better. We definitely need to get better to get where we need to go."

Added Carr: "We just need a couple little things to make us better and get us over the hump. I don't think there needs to be drastic changes. If we were better at a couple of things, we would have beaten the Colts. But we didn't. They were the better team. And so, if we improve and everybody's hungry, I think we'll be even better. We do that and we can be a Super Bowl contender."

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