What the Ravens will try to accomplish over the next eight weeks is neither unprecedented nor all that uncommon.
Since 1990, the year the NFL went to the 12-team playoff format, nine teams have made the playoffs after starting the season 3-5, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. The Washington Redskins and Cincinnati Bengals both did it last year, each winning seven of their final eight regular-season games to head into the postseason at 10-6.
The Ravens have shown little in recent weeks to suggest that they are capable of a similar turnaround. However, with eight games left, including Sunday's home matchup with the AFC North-leading Bengals (6-3), coach John Harbaugh is taking a confident and optimistic stance during one of the toughest stretches of his head-coaching career.
"There's half the season left to play and there's a lot of games out there for us to win," said Harbaugh, a day after his team couldn't take advantage of a bye week and lost to the Cleveland Browns. "We need to go stack some wins and it's all about this game. Obviously, Cincinnati is leading the division so this is an opportunity for us."
As poorly as the Ravens have played for much of this season and particularly during their stretch of three consecutive losses and four in the past five games, their path to a sixth straight postseason berth is treacherous though not unimaginable, thanks to a top-heavy conference and a disappointing division.
The Ravens are in third place in the AFC North and 2 1/2 games behind the Bengals, but they still play Cincinnati twice over the final eight weeks, giving them an opportunity to tighten the division race. Harbaugh, whose team plays at home four of the next five weeks, made it clear that the Ravens aren't conceding the AFC North though a loss to the Bengals on Sunday would all but end their two-year reign atop the division.
With one wild-card spot seemingly locked up by the runner-up in the AFC West — the Kansas City Chiefs are 9-0 while the Denver Broncos are 7-1— the Ravens are currently 1 1/2 games behind the New York Jets for the second wild card. But four other teams are between the Ravens and the Jets with the Tennessee Titans, Miami Dolphins and San Diego Chargers all sitting at 4-4, and the Browns heading into their bye week at 4-5.
"As it stands, we're in a tough spot," Harbaugh said. "But I believe in our guys — coaches and players. And I know we have what it takes to be a very good football team the second half of the season. What we do in the first half does not determine what we do in the second half. We have opportunities to accomplish everything that we want to accomplish.
"Momentum is a crazy thing. You've got to stop theirs and build yours. You've got to make a play, you've got to win a game and once you do that, you have a chance to build on that. Over the course of the last three weeks, we just haven't been good enough to get that done, and we acknowledge that. We thought we would be, we hoped we would be, we worked to be good enough, and we weren't good enough compared to the team that we played that day. We have to get good enough. We have to get better."
There are plenty of past statistics to support Harbaugh's optimism. For 13 consecutive seasons, an NFL team with a losing record through its first eight games went on to make the postseason, including three such teams last year, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Since 2000, a total of 32 teams have hit the halfway point of the season with a .500 or below win percentage and still made the playoffs.
The Ravens haven't had a losing record at the midpoint of the season since 2005, but they are no stranger to losing skids under Harbaugh, having lost three straight games last December and four of their final five regular-season games before they embarked on their Super Bowl run.
Of course, this year's team bears little resemblance to last year's group. They are 29th in the NFL in rushing yards per game (71.6) and 32nd in yards per carry (3.2). Every week, the Ravens express optimism in their run game, only to spend another game spinning their wheels with it.
Quarterback Joe Flacco, whose play keyed last year's playoff run, has already thrown nine interceptions, one fewer than he had last season, and the weekly hits he's taken behind a shaky offensive line appear to have taken their toll.
On defense, the Ravens have created just 10 turnovers in eight games and they've shown an alarming trend of fading down the stretch and failing to get off the field late in the fourth quarter. Then, there are the weekly special teams mishaps with the latest one being committed by punt returner Tandon Doss whose third-quarter muff led to a Browns' touchdown.
"We just have to be better in all phases, starting with me," Doss said Sunday. "I'm going to be back there catching punts all week just to make sure this doesn't happen again. Offensively, we have to get things going and defensively, we have to get things going. It's a team effort."
As frustrated as they were following the Browns' loss, which featured similar breakdowns like the ones that have plagued them all season, the Ravens' players seemed ready to embrace the challenge.
"It sounds like a broken record, but we got to get going," Ravens left guard A.Q. Shipley said. "We know the numbers game. We know where we stand. Cincinnati kind of helped us this last game with the loss. We're still in the thick of things for the division. No doubt about it, everybody from top to bottom, it has to get better."
"Cincinnati, that's our big target right now," he said. "We need to win that game to make it to the postseason."
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