As an exhausted and deflated group of Ravens filed out of the visiting locker room at Soldier Field Sunday following a 23-20 overtime loss to the Chicago Bears, they could take solace in one thing..
They were going home and they'd get to stay there for awhile.
With a 4-6 record, the Ravens' playoff hopes now hinge on the team's ability to protect its home field, which is one thing that they've done pretty well this season. The Ravens will play three games at M&T Bank Stadium over the course of 15 days, starting this Sunday against the New York Jets (5-5), continuing on Thanksgiving night against the Pittsburgh Steelers (4-6) and ending on Dec. 8 versus the Minnesota Vikings (2-8).
In an otherwise quiet locker room Sunday, safety James Ihedigbo said that the Ravens "have to win the next three at home" to maintain their playoff hopes, repeating the comment for emphasis. Ravens coach John Harbaugh stays away from declaring any game a "must win," but he left little ambiguity about how much importance his team is placing on Sunday's game against the Jets who have a one-game lead on the Ravens in the expanded AFC standings.
"I think it's pretty obvious that it's critically important," Harbaugh said Monday. "We're playing two teams that are in the wild-card chase with us and we're chasing the Bengals for the division championship and we're still in both of [the races]. If we don't win this game, it's going to be really tough. That's the way it is. I can't think of a situation this year that is more important."
The loss to the Bears, coupled by the Cincinnati's victory over the Cleveland Browns on Sunday, leaves the Ravens 2 1/2 games back of the Bengals in the AFC North, a significant margin with just six games remaining. However, as poorly as they've played in losing five of their last seven games and as little as they've resembled a playoff team for much of this season, the reality is that the Ravens are very much in the mix of the wild-card picture, thanks largely to the mediocrity of the AFC.
Only five of the 16 AFC teams will take a winning record into Week 12, leaving nine teams within 1 1/2 games of the second wild-card spot, currently held by the Jets. Overall, two teams are 5-5, six are 4-6 and another is 4-7. The Ravens aren't used to being in this position, but they have plenty of company.
"What it goes to show you is how close it is and what a razor-thin margin it is in the National Football League," Harbaugh said. "That's what makes the National Football League great. We'd all rather be sitting here talking about being atop the division and chasing home-field advantage or something like that. That's something we were shooting for. We wanted to be in that position. We haven't done the things that we needed to do to be in that position but we're in the hunt and we're playing two teams in the next two weeks at home that are right in the hunt with us.
"We are right there. We can do it and we're good enough to do it. We've got every tool we need. All we have to do is go get it done. But that's on us. We believe we have what it takes but it's up to us to prove it. We've got to prove it by going and winning these games."
Since the league went to the current playoff format in 1990, nine teams have made the playoffs despite starting 4-6, according to Elias. The Washington Redskins did it last season.
If the Ravens were to make a similar run, they will have to pick up steam at M&T Bank Stadium, where they are 36-8 under Harbaugh. They've won 27 of their last 31 regular-season games at home and are 3-1 this season.
It certainly doesn't hurt that the next three visitors to M&T Bank Stadium — the Jets, Steelers and Vikings — are a combined 2-14 on the road this season.
"It's not over," Ravens strong-side linebacker Elvis Dumervil said. "It goes to the Jets, man. The good thing is we got three home games. We must take advantage of that."
A day after the overtime loss to the Bears in a game that was delayed nearly two hours because of severe weather, Harbaugh said that he spoke to his team about eliminating the mistakes that continue to plague the Ravens in close games.
Against the Bears, quarterback Joe Flacco threw two interceptions, including one that was returned for a touchdown. A bad snap by Gino Gradkowski contributed to the Ravens settling for a game-tying field goal by Justin Tucker in the final seconds of regulation rather than scoring a go-ahead touchdown. The defense also made its share of mistakes, including a silly roughing the passer penalty on Dumervil that prolonged a Bears' fourth quarter drive.
"The thing that we talked about is the fact that we create too many opportunities for our opponent," Harbaugh said. "That's what we do too much this year. I think that's the biggest difference from other years when we won these close games. You can't give your opponent opportunities that they don't necessarily [create]. They are going to make enough plays on their own without [us] creating opportunities for them. We've got to do a better job of that, starting right now. That's got to be job one."
The Ravens are just 2-4 this season in games decided by three points or fewer, tied with the Jacksonville Jaguars and Houston Texans for the most losses in such contests. They led the league with five wins by three points or fewer last season.
That, more than anything, is the reason that they've put themselves in this predicament, likely needing to win the next three home games to stay afloat in the playoff picture.
"In the end, it comes down to winning a tight game, doing the things that you have to do to win a game, making the plays that you need to make and not giving them opportunities that they don't need to have," Harbaugh said. "That's what we have to continue to work on doing a better job of because we haven't done a good enough job in close games getting that done. So that's where we're at."
Sun reporter Aaron Wilson contributed to this articleCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun