Ravens running back Ray Rice shook his head for a moment while reflecting on one of the most frustrating aspects of this difficult season.
No one in the NFL has been involved in as many close games as the Ravens this season, and the results haven’t been favorable for the 5-6 team. The Ravens are 2-4 in games decided by three points or fewer. A year ago, it was a different story as the Ravens finished 5-3 in three-point games during the regular season on their way to winning the Super Bowl.
"When you think about it, you flip a coin and we win those games and we'd be sitting in a pretty position," Rice said. "That's the cost of winning and losing. It's so small. When you think about the games that we lost by such a small margin, if we'd won them, I'd be saying right now, 'We still have a lot to work on.'"
Heading into a pivotal Thursday night clash with the Pittsburgh Steelers that has major implications for both teams in a tight AFC wild-card race, history suggests that another close encounter is likely.
Nine of the past 13 total games between the AFC North rivals have been determined by three points, including the Steelers' 19-16 win over the Ravens on a game-winning field goal as time expired Oct. 20 at Heinz Field.
"It's just an intense rivalry," Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown said during a conference call with Baltimore reporters. "Great defense is played. I think everyone understands the urgency of the game. It's just iron on iron. It's always a tough battle, and it always comes down to the fourth quarter and to the end of the game."
Unlike last season, though, the Ravens' capabilities in close games have emerged as a question mark. The reasons for each setback have varied, but the outcome frequently has been a disappointment.
"Sometimes, we've got some self-inflicted wounds," Ravens defensive end Chris Canty said. "Others are just a matter of circumstance where we didn't get a break here or there. We don't really want to focus too much on why things haven't gone our way earlier in the season.
"We just want to focus on the opportunity and the moment for us. We've earned the right to compete against the Pittsburgh Steelers and try to solidify our position in the division. We'd like to show the whole country what kind of team we have. It's a tremendous opportunity against a rival. Everything we want to accomplish is still out in front of us."
The Ravens could not score a touchdown in the red zone at the end of regulation against the Chicago Bears at muddy Soldier Field two weeks ago during a 23-20 overtime loss. In that case, the Ravens had to settle for a field goal when an errant snap by center Gino Gradkowski disrupted the timing of a pass by Joe Flacco to an open Torrey Smith. The Ravens wound up losing when cornerback Lardarius Webb allowed a long pass to tight end Martellus Bennett in overtime that led to the game-winning field goal.
Against the Cincinnati Bengals, the Ravens' defense allowed a deflected Hail Mary touchdown pass to wide receiver A.J. Green in the closing seconds of regulation that nearly proved costly, eventually pulling out a 20-17 overtime victory.
The Ravens' kickoff team had a breakdown late in the fourth quarter on a long return by Steelers wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders earlier this season that set up the game-winning kick from Steelers kicker Shaun Suisham.
"We are who we are," Gradkowski said. "We've got a lot of opportunities and every game is still going to be huge, especially this game. We are where we are. We're definitely fighting to the very end in all those games. We're scrapping, we're fighting."
The Ravens have outscored opponents 227-215 this season, 74-57 in the fourth quarter. Despite that, the season hasn't gone their way with five games left on the schedule.
"We're just not making the plays toward the end of the game, whether it's offense not running the clock out or defense not making a play at the end of the game, it all goes hand in hand," Ravens fullback Vonta Leach said. "We have to find a way to get us over the hump."
Although the Ravens have won two of their past three games, the frequent close losses have placed them in danger of missing the playoffs for the first time in the six-year tenure of coach John Harbaugh. Of course, every loss has equal weight on the standings.
"It doesn't matter how close it is," Harbaugh said. "You can lose by 40 like some teams do, and it counts as one loss. You could lose by a field goal in overtime, and it's still one loss. So, that's the challenging part of it.
"Even when you feel like you're making progress towards improving, it's still a loss. Getting the victory in the end, that's the bottom line and it's rewarding in that way."
The Ravens remain in the hunt for the sixth and final playoff spot in the AFC; they now trail the Tennessee Titans and San Diego Chargers for the last wild-card berth. A loss to the Steelers would do significant damage to their playoff outlook. If the Steelers sweep the Ravens in the annual series for the first time since 2008, they would hold the head-to-head tiebreaker over them and a one-game edge in the AFC North standings. Both teams trail the first-place Bengals by two games.
So, the Ravens find themselves needing another clutch performance against their bitter rival.
"We wouldn't have it any other way," Webb said.
The high stakes against the Steelers, who are on a three-game winning streak, should only increase the intensity of this traditionally close matchup.
“It’s just the rivalry,” strong safety James Ihedigbo said. “It’s the competitive nature. Every game is always vital to a long-term success and our goals. It’s always going to be close. We expect that it’s going to be a dogfight.”
The Ravens are 4-1 at home this season. And they’ve also defended their territory against the AFC North with wins in eight of their last nine home games against division teams.
The exception to that success: a 23-20 loss to the Steelers on Dec. 2, 2012.
“We’re going into the lion’s den,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. “I think anybody that’s a competitor embraces that.”
The Ravens have gone 5-6 against the Steelers since Harbaugh replaced Brian Billick in 2008, going 2-3 at home to Pittsburgh while losing those games by an average of 3.3 points.
During that span, the Ravens have outscored the Steelers by a narrow margin with an average of 18.5 points per game to the Steelers' 16.5 mark.
Although the Ravens’ season has been largely defined so far by narrow defeats, Leach expressed confidence that a turnaround is still a possibility.
“It’s been the story so far, but everything we still want is still ahead of us,” Leach said. “All of our goals can still be attained and we still control our own destiny. We can change the ending.”