OWINGS MILLS — A downward spiral defined by chronic close losses has brought the Baltimore Ravens dangerously close to irrelevance in the playoff hunt.
Reeling after suffering defeats in five of their past seven games, the Ravens (5-5) can’t afford to continue this troubling trend.
The Ravens’ 17-15 loss Sunday to the undefeated Indianapolis Colts was a textbook example of what has plagued this football team in the clutch.
For the Ravens to make a serious run to return to the playoffs one season removed from a surprising march to the AFC championship game, they’ll need to finish strong beginning with Sunday night’s game against the defending champion Pittsburgh Steelers.
“It’s basically for us a six-game season,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said Monday. “As the record stands, we’re a 5-5 football team. But we’re also a real good football team, a football team that has an opportunity to achieve some serious goals, really every goal that we’ve had at the beginning of the season. .. The season’s not over by any stretch.”
That’s true, especially considering the unpredictable, jumbled nature of the AFC wild-card picture.
The Ravens trail the Steelers (6-4), Jacksonville Jaguars (6-4) and the Denver Broncos (6-4) by one game in the wild-card race.
“The door is still open,” tight end Todd Heap said. “It’s not all the way open, but it’s still open. We have to understand that and work like we have that opportunity ahead of us.”
In order to get to 10 victories, though, the Ravens will likely have to split their fierce rivalry series with the Steelers, beat the Green Bay Packers in a Monday night road game and avoid any missteps against the following also-rans: the Chicago Bears, Detroit Lions and Oakland Raiders.
With the exception of the Ravens’ second loss to the Cincinnati Bengals by 10 points, their other four losses are by a total of 13 points.
"We aspire to be one of the elite teams in the National Football League, and in order to achieve that, those are the games you’ve got to find a way to win," Harbaugh said. "Not all of them, but you’ve got to win your share of those games. We’ve got two of those games coming up in the next two weeks.”
However, the Ravens have continually come up short in competitive games with a series of memorable breakdowns.
There was wide receiver Mark Clayton’s dropped pass in a 27-21 loss to the New England Patriots.
Then, the Ravens committed a series of penalties in the game-deciding drive in a 17-14 setback against the Cincinnati Bengals punctuated by middle linebacker Ray Lewis’ unnecessary helmet shot on wide receiver Chad Ochocinco.
Plus, since-discarded kicker Steve Hauschka flubbed a potential game-winning field goal in a 33-31 defeat to the Minnesota Vikings.
And the Ravens experienced a brutal fourth quarter against the Colts headlined by their failure to score on a first-and-goal, quarterback Joe Flacco’s pivotal interception, free safety Ed Reed’s ill-advised lateral that he fumbled away and Harbaugh squandering two timeouts during the sequence of a lost challenge.
“Doing the little things, that is the only thing that’s going to put us on the road to, I guess, recovery,” wide receiver Derrick Mason said. “That’s going to allow us to get on a string of victories. A lot of things that happen on that field we can control. No more excuses. There can’t be any more excuses. ..
“You can’t get in the playoffs unless you win 10 games or more. We have to win every game from here on out, point blank. Anyone who doesn’t think that we don’t have to win all these games, they’re lying to themselves. If you want to call it pressure, then it’s pressure.”
Against the Colts (10-0), the Ravens displayed plenty of signs of being good enough to compete with and beat a quality opponent.
The Ravens piled up 20 first downs and 354 yards of total offense, but went 0-for-4 as far as scoring touchdowns in the red zone and were forced to settle for five Billy Cundiff field goals.
Defensively, they intercepted Peyton Manning twice and forced a total of three turnovers.
For the season, though, the Ravens’ five losses are against teams with a combined record of 33-17. And their five wins, which includes victories over the San Diego Chargers (7-3) and Broncos, are against teams with a combined record of 17-23.
“It’s interesting to me and it’s part of what makes the National Football League so great, the drumbeat outside in a positive way and a negative way,” Harbaugh said. “It’s so fierce and you naturally hear that. We know we’re a good football team. I guarantee the people that play us know what kind of a football team we are.
“The difference is finding a way to win those games against good football teams. That’s what you have to do to be an elite football team in this league. I know we’re going to be that. It’s a matter of when, and we need to make it happen this week."
Harbaugh remains convinced that the Ravens can get back to the mettle they displayed when they won their first three games before their current 2-5 detour.
“It’s not the first six, it’s the last six,” he said. “It’s not the first three in our case. I think that’s proven. It’s the final six games that make the season as far as the regular season, and that’s where we’re at.”
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.