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OWINGS MILLS — In the aftermath of the Baltimore Ravens’ latest painful setback, the defending AFC North champions are beginning to come to grips with the grim reality of a doomed season.
Following a 33-30 overtime loss to the Cleveland Browns, the Ravens (4-6) are now mired in a four-game losing streak and are all but officially eliminated from playoff contention.
A season that began with seemingly legitimate Super Bowl aspirations after last season’s franchise-record 13-3 campaign has degenerated into a quest for survival with the modest goals of maintaining pride and job security prior to at least some sort of offseason overhaul.
One day after losing to the Browns after kicker Phil Dawson’s double-ricochet, 51-yard field goal at the end of regulation sent the Ravens dashing into the locker room thinking they had won only to be summoned back to the field after the officials correctly ruled that the football had struck the stanchion support in the middle of the crossbar, at least Billick hasn’t lost his dry sense of humor.
The Ravens have lost just about everything else, enduring five losses to division opponents, a development which would have been deemed unthinkable when they began training camp in July.
"We talk many times in training camp about preparing your team for the inevitable things," Billick said Monday. "I was remiss in covering what we do when we’ve won a game, go into the locker room and are told to come back out again. That’s not one scenario that I’ve covered. So, I don’t know that I had them adequately prepared.â€
Gallow’s humor aside, the Ravens could be headed for even more trouble in the next three weeks.
They travel to the West Coast this week to face the talented, albeit underachieving San Diego Chargers (5-5) followed by consecutive home games against the undefeated New England Patriots (10-0) and the reigning Super Bowl champion Indianapolis Colts (8-2).
Fielding a turnover-prone, aging, injury-riddled team, the Ravens’ season has gone awry.
"It’s very disappointing," Billick said. "Yeah, it’s gotten away only in the sense that we’re certainly not where we want to be."
Ranked in third place in the division, three games behind the division-leading Pittsburgh Steelers, the Ravens are aware that no six-game winning streak is likely in the offing.
"You hold onto whatever competitive perspective you choose to, individually and collectively," Billick said. "You’ve got to take the mentality of, ‘Okay, we’ll run the table with six wins.’ Unrealistic? Sure, but you have to take that attitude."
Billick said the Ravens will hold off on turning the season into an evaluation period for young players because they haven’t been formally eliminated. Plus, theyâ€™re already starting or regularly playing multiple young players.
"That’s not part of the thought process right now," he said.
Meanwhile, Billick indicated that the Ravens will file a report with the league regarding how the end of the game was handled by referee Pete Morelli and his crew.
"We’ll lodge the normal concerns we had not only with the way the end of the game was administered, but also a couple of calls leading up to that and let the appropriate people handle it," Billick said. "For us, it’s a matter of moving on. Very disappointed, surely as unique a circumstance as I’ve ever been a part of.
"There’s nothing I can add in terms of what they did, what did they see, what actually happened, what should have been done. I’ll let the officials communicate that, as I’m sure they will, responding to our memos and in their TV shows. So, I’ll try not to supersede that."
Billick defended his decision to have quarterback Kyle Boller throw two consecutive passes on 2nd-and-1 and 3rd-and-1 at the Browns’ 39-yard line prior to Matt Stover’s 47-yard field goal with 31 seconds remaining in regulation. Both fell incomplete, and Billick has been criticized for not running the ball at least once to eat up more clock.
"If we should have run more time off the clock?" Billick said. "We were on the 30 on a cold, damp night and we’ve got a lot of faith in Matt Stover. We were trying to get the yardage.â€
The second-guessing wasn’t confined to the play-calling.
Billick backed special teams coach Frank Gansz opting to repeatedly kick to star Browns return specialist Joshua Cribbs despite him averaging 35 yards per kickoff return.
"You’ve got to hope that you can cover kicks well enough and make that a long enough field that it doesn’t allow a team to come back, but obviously we didn’t quite get it done," Billick said. "You have one of two options: You kick the ball out of bounds and give it to them on the 40. At some point, you’ve got to kick it on the field of play, unless you’re good enough to kick it out of the back of the end zone.
"You’ve got to kick it to the guy unless you want to squib it, which is a little dangerous. Our kick coverage, although good against a very good returner for a lot of the game, in some key areas gave them some short fields that you’d like to avoid."
Now, the Ravens have tied the franchise’s longest losing streak with four previous four losses in a row in 1996, 1998 and 2005. They have dropped consecutive home game for the first time since December of 2002.
Billick acknowledged concern about the team’s emotional state after this loss.
"I always worry about my team emotionally and where they’re at, but they’re very, very resilient," Billick said. "Like I said, we had a great week last week. Very focused, energetic. I’ll be surprised if they’re not the same way, but I do worry about it."
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.