Ravens coach John Harbaugh was all smiles during his news conference Monday, clearly ready to embark on a post-bye-week playoff push with a team that is probably as healthy as it has been since the first day of training camp.
We’ll find out over the next few weeks whether he was just whistling past the graveyard.
He’s right about the current condition of his roster and the wide-open nature of the AFC playoff race, but the challenge for his 4-5 team is still daunting and — despite the admirable patience of owner Steve Bisciotti — failure might not be an option.
There’s just too much at stake.
The fan base is understandably restless and the entire sport is in crisis. The pervasive mediocrity that has kept hope alive for a wild-card playoff berth might turn out to be a lifeline for a Ravens team that was too banged up to be more competitive over the first half of the season. But it also leaves little room to alibi a similarly dispiriting performance over the next seven games.
Keep in mind that the Ravens aren’t the only team that has been playing hurt. The Green Bay Packers are starting backup quarterback Brett Hundley, the fifth quarterback the Ravens will face who was not projected as his team’s Week 1 starter, and they’ll go against at least two others when they play the Houston Texans and the Indianapolis Colts.
The Ravens need to go to Lambeau Field this weekend and show they can take advantage of the wounded Packers. They need to win at least three of their four remaining home games and beat the winless Cleveland Browns on the road. That would probably leave them the luxury of losing to the Steelers in Pittsburgh.
Throw in the fact that two of their main wild-card rivals — the Buffalo Bills and Miami Dolphins — lost by a combined 61 points Sunday – and it all seems pretty doable if the Ravens can morph back into some semblance of the team they thought they were going to be when opening camp 3½ months ago.
Harbaugh obviously thinks so.
“I feel like every week we’re going to go win,” he said. “There’s never a game where I don’t feel like we’re going to go in there and win. And it doesn’t have to be close. That’s just the way I always feel. You always understand what has to go right, or what you have to avoid, and the mistakes you have to manage. But I never feel like we’re not going to go in there and win, and if we play like we’re supposed to, we’re going to be running the clock out in the fourth quarter and on a knee for the last two minutes. That’s the plan. So it’s no different for the next seven games. That’s how we feel. We’re confident.”
Sure, you’re thinking, “What else is he going to say?” That’s fairly typical coachspeak, but don’t think for a minute that he doesn’t know this final run could be critical to the future of the franchise on a number of levels.
For instance, the next seven games could determine whether the Ravens decide they need to start pivoting toward their next franchise quarterback. If Joe Flacco cannot get the offense moving, the front office would be derelict if it did not seek a solid quarterback prospect in next year’s draft and begin grooming him for a possible transition in 2019.
The Ravens are likely to add a young quarterback next offseason regardless, but if Flacco continues to struggle they might have to consider trading up in the first round in April to get one of the top-rated college prospects.
If the team’s fortunes take a hard downward turn, then everything is in play. Bisciotti has given the front office and the head coach a series of confidence votes over the past year, and continues to stress the importance of organizational stability. But that concept is going to ring hollow if his team ends up with its third straight nonwinning season.
There are all sorts of reasons why that’s a distinct possibility. Some of them are beyond the control of the front office and the coaching staff, but the Ravens are 17-24 over the past 2½ seasons and it’s hard to imagine a guy as competitive as Bisciotti remaining sanguine if that dismal record gets worse instead of better.
He had to be concerned about all the empty seats at M&T Bank Stadium when the Ravens hosted the Chicago Bears and the Dolphins. Imagine what the stands might look like if the Ravens are out of contention when the Colts and Cincinnati Bengals show up in town for the final two regular-season games.
There’s really only one cure for what ails the Ravens right now and that’s a return to the playoffs.
The planets — and the remaining schedule — appear to be aligned for that to happen, but it would be a fool’s errand to bank on anything in this strange season.
Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here," at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog.
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