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OWINGS MILLS — The dominant superpowers from a year ago have regressed into the football equivalent of third-world countries.
As the Baltimore Ravens (4-6) take on the San Diego Chargers (5-5) today at Qualcomm Stadium, it’s a clash between two of the league’s biggest disappointments. This game offers a stark reminder of how precarious it can be to stay atop the NFL ladder of success.
Only a year ago, the Chargers and the Ravens were runaway division winners who generated the top two regular-season records in the league with 14-2 and 13-3 marks, respectively. With six games remaining on the schedule, both teams have already doubled last year’s loss totals.
The Ravens are on the verge of sinking to a new low in franchise history. A loss today would spell an unprecedented five-game losing streak.
"I’d have laughed, considering where we were last year," Ravens wide receiver Derrick Mason said when asked how he would have reacted to a preseason prediction that Baltimore and San Diego would have combined for 11 losses at this juncture of the season. "To come back the next season and say we would be at the bottom of the totem pole, you would laugh considering the talent we have and the talent the Chargers have on both sides of the ball.
"But that’s the NFL. One year you’re up and the next year you’re down. I think each and every year you’ve got to be able to reload and deal with the injuries, go out there and play some good football."
Between a more demanding schedule, multiple injuries to key players, an awful turnover margin, poor quarterbacking and some questionable play-calling, the Ravens have spiraled downward and are already all but officially eliminated from playoff contention.
"We need the help, man," linebacker Bart Scott said. "I said a couple weeks ago that we didn’t need FEMA help, but I’m about ready to call the government."
Added middle linebacker Ray Lewis: "I think it’s desperation for both teams."
Fifteen Ravens have missed a total of 54 games with five players placed on injured reserve.
The Ravens are tied for last in the NFL with the Houston Texans with 26 turnovers and are tied for 29th in turnover margin with a minus-9 ratio. Baltimore is on pace to commit a franchise-record 41 turnovers, and the Ravens have surrendered an average of 14 points per game off turnovers in their six defeats.
The Ravens’ average margin of defeat has been 12.3 points.
Is this late NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle’s vision of parity manifesting itself once again?
"You see it every year, it’s kind of what makes our league exciting and different from year to year," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "It’s more fun when you’re on the flip side of it. In the old days, when you were good you were good for a long time.
"When you were bad, you were bad for a long time. It took a long way to dig your way out. That’s not what this league’s about right now."
At least the Chargers’ record ties them for first place in the AFC West.
Conversely, Baltimore is a distant third in the AFC North at three games behind the Pittsburgh Steelers.
"Up one year doesn’t guarantee anything the next year," Scott said. "That just gives you a greater appreciation for the teams that can consistently be on the top like the Colts, like the Patriots, because it’s tough to stay up there.
"You inherit the toughest schedule the next year and the turnaround and free agency, so many things have to go right to maintain that longevity of success. There have been a lot of things, you can’t really put your finger on one."
At least the Ravens haven’t been pointing fingers unlike previous squads that squabbled publicly. If there’s any locker-room unrest, it has remained in-house.
"We might disagree on some things, but that’s anybody," running back Willis McGahee said. "We’re not going to separate ourselves from each other. We’re a team. I look at it as a test to see how long we can stay together. We’re doing a great job with it now."
Over the next three games, though, the Ravens’ situation could worsen. They’re playing the Chargers, the undefeated New England Patriots and the defending Super Bowl champion Indianapolis Colts, teams with a combined record of 23-7.
"We’re headed up, you’ve got to think very positive," Mason said. "Youâ€™ve got to think the cup is half full with some more on the way, because if you think anything less then youâ€™re setting yourself up for ultimate failure. The road is only going to get harder.
"It’s tough, but you have to find something within yourself. Especially with the situation we’re in, we can’t help but to go out and play these last six games as if our fate in football depends on it, and it does."
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.