Besides being the most difficult time of the season - the end - this is the most awkward time for an NFL team and its players. Derrick Mason and Adalius Thomas are illustrating why.
For six months, just dating from the start of training camp, the Ravens (like every other team, especially eventual playoff teams) have been all about the collective goal, with individual glory moved to the back burner. Now that it's over - in this case, abruptly so - as much as being a team is still important, the realities and the business of the individual move to the front again.
It's rarely pretty and usually unpleasant. It's life in the league, though, and it has to get done. And the players, no matter how much they sell the togetherness angle all season, have no choice but to look out for their own interests - because one way or another, they know that no one else will do it, no matter how beloved they are in their town.
Sometimes it's done quietly, as Thomas has handled it so far as his free agency approaches, and as he handled it yesterday when the Ravens players had their season-ending meetings at the Castle in Owings Mills and cleaned out their lockers. Thomas didn't exactly exit quietly, but he passed through the locker room smiling and jovial while politely declining to talk to the throng of reporters.
The only person to whom he really had a lot to say was Derrick Mason, cracking jokes as Mason was himself surrounded by the media. Mason isn't a free agent. But no Raven, after Saturday's devastating playoff loss to the Colts and during trash-bag day yesterday, had more to say than he did.
And pretty much all of it was about him, his disappointment with being "underappreciated" and underused, all but forgotten about in the offense late in the regular season and against the Colts. The Ravens lost, and he felt left out, unfairly and inexplicably so.
That is also totally understandable.
There always comes a point, whether or not fans like it or management appreciates it, when players have to address their own needs. Whether a team goes far each season often comes down to how and when it juggles this. And even when it's held together long enough to win the last game of the season, such issues - whether a player stays or goes - can cut a championship reign brutally short.
Longtime NBA coach Pat Riley, who knows this (and occasionally succumbs to it himself) years ago dubbed it "the disease of me." But it's really a disease only if too many of those involved let it get too contagious.
It ran through the Ravens' 2005 locker room like the flu, and it at least contributed to the 6-10 record. It was contained this past season, and that was no small factor in their going 13-3.
But it's still a delicate issue that can never be handled sensitively enough on either side. Ask Thomas and Mason about that.
Thomas has heard the fans imploring him to "stay loyal" and stay with the Ravens, who groomed him to stardom and, for certain, a huge, career-defining payday. He has been as diplomatic as possible, steering clear not only of any talk about his free agency, but also of any negotiations during the season, period. Smart play.
Except that if Thomas eventually decides to go elsewhere, for more money, a big chunk of the love and admiration Ravens fans have for him will instantly change to rage.
Accusations of greed, selfishness and disloyalty will be hurled about on every radio show, letters page and message board in the metropolitan area - especially in this city, which just spent a week putting its abandonment issues on full nationwide display - despite the fact that Thomas might have had the most selfless season ever by a defensive player.
Thus, you can't blame Thomas for holding his tongue.
Mason, meanwhile, felt he had no reason to hold back in the aftermath of Saturday's loss, and made it crystal clear yesterday that he didn't take back anything he had said in the heat of the moment. It was mentioned to him that his talking about himself in that environment would make him sound ... you know.
"I don't care. Until you're in this position, you can't say whether I'm selfish or not," he quickly replied. "There's a lot of people in the workplace that feel they are underappreciated, but they don't have a voice to say anything. It just so happens I have a voice, and I'm going to use it, good or bad.
"I don't think I'm sounding selfish, but I just want to make it understood - as a player, that's how I feel, and that's how it is."
Making yourself understood under such circumstances is as hard for a player as learning the playbook. He might never have a better platform, after a game in which the Ravens were eliminated without scoring a touchdown. Yet it will be a while before he stops hearing from someone, somewhere, that he needs to shut his selfish cakehole and be a "team player."
As Thomas might find out, that's not necessarily the answer, either. It's time for the NFL to go back to being a business, and NFL business is never pretty.