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Deemed a playoff team in April, Ravens have yet to prove Ozzie Newsome right

For the better part of an hour, general manager Ozzie Newsome answered questions about the Ravens' numerous offseason losses, their remaining roster holes and the challenge they would face trying to repeat as Super Bowl champions.

Finally, he decided to turn the tables on reporters and ask a question of his own.

"I'd like for someone to be able to tell me that we aren't good enough to go to the playoffs right now," Newsome said at the team's annual pre-draft luncheon in mid-April. "Can anyone say that?"

Newsome's question was met by silence. More than eight months later, it's still unclear whether the Ravens are a playoff team. They often haven't played like one, failing to establish an offensive identity or a dominant defense, and struggling to recapture last year's postseason formula.

But as they close out their regular season Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium, one goal remains attainable. The Ravens (8-7) need a victory over the AFC North champion Cincinnati Bengals and a loss by either the Miami Dolphins to the New York Jets or the San Diego Chargers to the Kansas City Chiefs to make the postseason for a sixth straight year.

In John Harbaugh's first two seasons (2008 and 2009) as head coach, the Ravens went into Week 17 needing a victory to make the playoffs, but they've never needed help, too.

"It's definitely strange, especially since I've been here, we've gone to the AFC championship and won the Super Bowl," said third-year wide receiver Torrey Smith. "We're used to winning around here and winning is expected. It's not something that you hope for. It's expected.

"We know we're an unfamiliar situation because we've known in the past that we were going to the playoffs. It was just a matter if we were going to get a home game or a bye or whatnot. That's really been the biggest difference. But we're still in it, and until we're not we can't really worry about anything else."

Harbaugh took it a step further on Friday, saying that he doesn't "really care what happens" in the Dolphins-Jets game.

"We have to win. That's it. We don't have to have that game go a certain way," Harbaugh said. "… What I care about and what our guys care about is winning the game. That's what we will do. We will go out there and put everything into it to win that game. We plan on winning the game by any means necessary. After that, it's out of our control."

Harbaugh's Ravens endured an unprecedented roster turnover for a Super Bowl champion, a couple of key injuries, career-worst years for several veterans and a 4-6 start. Just last week, they were humiliated at home by the New England Patriots, 41-7, in the worst loss of Harbaugh's tenure.

That defeat left the Ravens on the brink of the offseason, unfamiliar territory at this time of year for the organization. The Ravens are the only team in the NFL to qualify for the postseason in each of the past five years and they've won at least one playoff game in every one of those seasons.

"I've been to the playoffs every year," said running back Ray Rice, whose sixth season has been his most disappointing. The former Pro Bowler ranks 26th in the NFL with 645 rushing yards.

"Every game has essentially been a playoff game for us for the last couple of weeks, and we've been holding on by a strand," he said. "I take a lot of pride in being in the playoffs every year. Quite frankly, I'm not looking for it to change [one] bit."

If the Ravens fail to make the playoffs, it will mark the fourth time in the past eight seasons that a reigning Super Bowl winner didn't make the postseason the following year.

Such trends, along with the dramatic roster changes — eight starters on the Super Bowl team departed the organization in the offseason — caused plenty of pundits to predict a down year for the Ravens. NFL Network analyst Charley Casserly, a former general manager of the Washington Redskins and Houston Texans, told The Sun that a 9-7 season would be a huge accomplishment for the Ravens.

However, the Ravens didn't lower their expectations. They felt a retooled roster, a veteran nucleus and a hard-driving coaching staff would keep them among the league's elite, but it's been a struggle throughout.

"Speaking from an offensive standpoint, we have not played our best football yet," said tight end Dennis Pitta, who dislocated his hip early in training camp, forcing him to miss the Ravens' first 12 games and robbing quarterback Joe Flacco of one of his most trusted targets. "We have a lot of potential on this team. For the season to end this week would be a tough pill to swallow. But it's the hole that we dug."

On offense, Flacco, last year's Super Bowl Most Valuable Player and owner of the largest contract in franchise history, is one interception away from setting a team record. The running game has been the least productive one in team history and the offensive line is headed for a major offseason shakeup.

There have been more positives on the defensive end, but the dominant pass rush that team officials expected has never materialized. The defense ranks a respectable ninth in the NFL, but it has been at its worst late in games.

And yet, with all those flaws, the Ravens still have a legitimate shot to make the playoffs, and they know from recent experience that once that happens, they'll get a much-needed clean slate.

"Right now, what we're chasing is trying to get back to 0-0," Rice said. "If I know [this] group, the group that's going to show up on Sunday is going to fight to the last whistle until it's all over. … You're probably not going to see anybody happy or smiling right now just because the situation that we're in."

Rice said this week that he plans to re-dedicate himself this offseason to make sure he regains his old form as one of the NFL's top all-purpose threats. A number of other Ravens, however, have been reluctant to discuss their futures with a potential playoff berth still out there to be won.

The Ravens could have as many as 13 unrestricted free agents, including one of their top playmakers (Jacoby Jones), all three of their tight ends, both of their starting offensive tackles and their top two tacklers (Daryl Smith and James Ihedigbo).

Several other long-time Ravens could be in jeopardy, as well, because of their high salary cap numbers.

But those are decisions that will be made well into the offseason. The Ravens aren't quite ready for that offseason to begin, and have one more opportunity to prove that they are playoff worthy.

"We have unfinished business as a unit together," said tight end Ed Dickson, one of the would-be free agents. "For me, I have to play the best football I've played all season just to do my job and help us win the game. You talk about a one-game season, this is ultimately a one-game season."

jeff.zrebiec@baltsun.com

twitter.com/jeffzrebiecsun

Baltimore Sun reporter Matt Vensel contributed to this article

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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