Ravens' drop-off raises urgency


Winning in November and December is no longer a certainty for the Ravens.

Neither are the playoffs.

The Ravens' uncharacteristic free fall in the second half of the regular season - losing three of their past four games - has officially put their postseason aspirations in jeopardy. If the regular season ended today, they would miss the playoffs for just the second time in five years, getting nudged out of the final AFC spot by the Jacksonville Jaguars because of the third tiebreaker (common opponents).

A month ago, the Ravens were campaigning to be placed among the NFL's elite teams after rolling out to the franchise's first-ever 7-3 start. Now, after the rout in New England, the fourth-quarter meltdown against Cincinnati and the stalled drives in Indianapolis, the Ravens (8-6) don't have a hold on a playoff spot for the first time down the stretch this season.

Like cornerback Chris McAlister biting on Marvin Harrison's fake on Sunday night, the Ravens have seemingly lost their way with two games left. Ravens coach Brian Billick argued otherwise yesterday.

"We've played some good teams. We've done some good things. We've done some things that have gotten us beat," Billick said. "It really doesn't go beyond that. Their mindset is confidence. You saw it [Sunday night] the way they responded. I saw no sign of any psychological, 'Geez, is this not going to be our year?' Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. I'm not concerned on a bigger scale, not with this team."

Under Billick, the Ravens have been one of the NFL's best in the final two full months of the regular season. Their record of 32-16 (.667) in November and December is tied for second best in the league since 1999.

But this recent skid - only the second time they have lost three of four in these months with Billick - has taken away any control the Ravens had of their playoff fate. Even if they win out with an upset in Pittsburgh (13-1) and a victory over Miami (3-11), there are scenarios in which they would not make the postseason.

"The objective is to get to 10-6," Billick said. "Does 10-6 get you in? We'll find out. There are multiple scenarios and multiple things have to happen before it's determined what the playoff picture is going to be."

If the Ravens want to reach that objective, they have to reach the end zone more frequently.

Sunday night's 20-10 loss in Indianapolis was the eighth time the Ravens have been held to one or no offensive touchdowns in 14 games this season.

There were ample chances for the Ravens, who crossed into the Colts' territory nine times and came away with a touchdown and a field goal. They ran nearly half of their plays (33 of 71) past midfield but averaged only 2.7 yards a play when they did so.

As a result, the Ravens left with as many turnovers (two interceptions) as scores.

"The pivotal part of the equation is you can't turn the ball over, particularly on the road," Billick said. "For us, the exchange of points is going to get you beat against a good team. That's exactly what happened."

Meanwhile, the Ravens expect to make the stretch run with their full complement of players, albeit with some slight limps.

Billick said running back Jamal Lewis (ankle), tight end Todd Heap and nickel back Deion Sanders (foot) all were sore after playing on the RCA Dome's unforgiving AstroTurf but he indicated that they all should be able to play Sunday in Pittsburgh.

Linebacker Ray Lewis, who said he fractured his wrist, is also scheduled to play. He likely will wear either a cast or a splint to protect it, according to Billick.

"There's little doubt that he will play on Sunday," Billick said.

What's in doubt is where the Ravens will finish.

Beating Pittsburgh is now a must, considering three other AFC teams are 8-6. And the Steelers are equally motivated, knowing a loss could cost them home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs.

"It really doesn't matter what's on the line for them or us," Billick said. "It's always a tough, physical game. We're looking forward to it. It's going to be quite a battle because they're obviously the best team in the league right now."

Next for Ravens

Matchup: Ravens (8-6) vs. Pittsburgh Steelers (13-1)

Site: Heinz Field, Pittsburgh

When: Sunday, 1 p.m.

TV/Radio: Ch. 13/WJFK (1300 AM), WQSR (102.7 FM)

Line: Steelers by 6

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