The Ravens' first goal every season is to make it to the playoffs so in that sense, Sunday wasn't as big of a disaster as it once appeared. But the manner in which it happened leaves plenty of questions about whether the Ravens will be able to accomplish their other goals, which go far beyond just qualifying for the postseason.
Long after the last player had filtered out of M&T Bank Stadium following a humbling 34-17 loss against the Denver Broncos on Sunday, the Ravens (9-5) got an early Christmas gift when the Pittsburgh Steelers were beaten in overtime by the Dallas Cowboys. That result secured the Ravens' NFL-high fifth straight playoff berth, but did little to alleviate the concern stemming from a three-game losing streak, a regressing offense and a banged-up defense.
"We've owned the last three losses. We also own the nine wins," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said Monday. "We are what we are, we are what our record says we are and we're in contention and we're proud of that but we know we have to get better and we have to get healthy."
The Ravens' three-game losing streak is their longest since October 2009, Harbaugh's second year. They have lost back-to-back homegames for the first time in the Harbaugh era and on Sunday, they'll welcome the New York Giants, who are coming off a 34-0 drubbing against the Atlanta Falcons. That defeat dropped the reigning Super Bowl champs out of sole possession of the NFC East lead and puts them essentially in a must-win situation Sunday.
While the secured playoff spot may take some pressure off the Ravens, they still need one win to clinch a second straight AFC North title, and a first-round home playoff game against a wildcard opponent. If they lose their final two games and either the Steelers or the Cincinnati Bengals win their last two, the Ravens would claim a wildcard spot and open the playoffs on the road.
"Our number one objective right now is to win the AFC North. That is a mighty accomplishment. With the adversity that we faced, we're going to be darn proud of that but we have to earn that," said Harbaugh whose team closes the season at Cincinnati. "That's a goal that's right in front of us. And then our dream is to win the ultimate prize. That's a possibility, too, that's an opportunity that we have. We need to get healthy and we need to get better. If we can do those two things, we give ourselves a chance."
Harbaugh declined to characterize the three-game losing streak, which included the blowout loss to Denver in which the home team was booed and two last-second losses to Pittsburgh and the Washington Redskins, as the toughest stretch of his coaching career. However, it certainly has tested the coach who fired his offensive coordinator, Cam Cameron, last week and will spend this week trying to figure out a way to get the offense going and stabilize a defense that continues to rely on backups at several key spots.
"This has been difficult. It's been challenging. But to me, any adversity and challenge represents an opportunity," Harbaugh said. "It's an opportunity for our guys, for all of us, to establish who we are, what we're about. It's a little easier when things are going well for people to be in a good place. It's a little tougher when things get tough. I'm looking forward to seeing how we respond to it."
Harbaugh summed up his message to the team Monday as "get healthy and get better," a phrase that he repeated a handful of times during his approximate 15-minute news conference. That first part got a little bit tougher Monday with the news that linebacker Jameel McClain will miss the rest of the season with a spinal cord contusion.
In Sunday's matchup against the Broncos, the Ravens didn't have four of their top five tacklers in McClain, Dannell Ellerbe (ankle), Bernard Pollard (chest) and Ray Lewis (triceps). Outside linebacker Terrell Suggs (biceps) and defensive tackle Haloti Ngata (knee/shoulder) were also playing through injuries.
On offense, tight end Ed Dickson (knee) and Pro Bowl right guard Marshal Yanda (ankle) sat out , and then wide receiver Torrey Smith and running back Bernard Pierce left the game due to concussions. Harbaugh didn't provide any significant updates but none of the injured players are guaranteed to return Sunday.
"We always feel like the next man up is going to get the job done," said running back Ray Rice who had just 38 yards rushing against the Broncos. "That's not an excuse to get the job done. We have to get it together."
Said Ed Reed who called Sunday's loss an embarrassment: "You still have games, and you still have a lot of football to be played, a lot of practice, a lot of corrections we could make. And we have to make them. If we don't make them, then it won't be a concern. It will be us home in January during the playoffs, somewhere I know we don't want to be."
While some of the defensive struggles can be partially explained by the rash of injuries the unit has endured, the offense doesn't have as convenient of an excuse. In the past three games, quarterback Joe Flacco has six turnovers , three fumbles and three interceptions.
His interception just before halftime Sunday as the Ravens appeared poised to cut into the Broncos' 10-0 lead was returned 98 yards for a touchdown by Chris Harris. Flacco has been held to under 200 yards passing in five of his past eight games and although he threw for 254 yards Sunday, most of them were after the game had long been decided.
Asked if his quarterback was pressing, Harbaugh said, "I hope everybody is pressing, I really do. I hope we're all pressing. I hope we're all doing everything that we can do to get a little bit better. Where the line is between that and overdoing it, I don't know. But we're all going to press. I'm for pressing."
Harbaugh did acknowledge that he reminded his players that late-season slides don't necessarily mean playoff failure. The Giants lost four straight games spanning November and December last year and they went on to win the Super Bowl. The year before, the Green Bay Packers lost three of four games from November to December before they went on a run and won the Super Bowl.
As the Ravens have been fond of saying lately, every one of their goals is still in front of them but they are going to have to play significantly better than they have over the next couple of weeks.
"It's really been the same issue all year and we understand that," Harbaugh said. "We're struggling with inconsistency and that's something we have to find between now and when the playoffs start. We're going to work hard to do that. I don't think we're that far away. I really believe we're close."