Rocky Road

The Baltimore Sun

If the playoffs started today, the Ravens would not make the postseason.

But if they can clinch a playoff berth by the end of the season, they certainly would have earned it.

Starting with Monday night's game in Pittsburgh, the Ravens begin the NFL's fourth-toughest schedule over the final nine weeks of regular season.

There are two grudge matches with the Steelers and the league's top-ranked defense. There's LaDainian Tomlinson in Week 12. There's Tom Brady in Week 13. And there's an emotional rematch with the defending Super Bowl champion Indianapolis Colts in Week 14.

Although most of the Ravens have reiterated the party line that their focus is on the Steelers, wide receiver Derrick Mason dared to look ahead, and he could only shake his head at the challenge.

"Looking at the schedule, it's mind-boggling the teams we have to play," Mason said. "We start with Pittsburgh and end with Pittsburgh. Everyone else in the middle ... goodness gracious. We've got to go now. It's now or never."

Except for the Miami Dolphins, the Ravens' remaining opponents either lead a division (Steelers, San Diego Chargers, New England Patriots, Indianapolis Colts and Seattle Seahawks) or already have beaten the Ravens (Cincinnati Bengals and Cleveland Browns).

And though the Dolphins are winless, the Ravens have never won a regular-season game in South Florida.

"I'm excited about it. It's games that you get up for," linebacker Bart Scott said. "You live for going against the elite players in this league and measure yourself up against LaDainian Tomlinson and Randy Moss and see where you stand. I love it. These are the better games for us because we're the underdog. We're getting up to play somebody else. It's an opportunity to represent ourselves well against great teams."

Injuries aside, the Ravens have not taken advantage of a soft first-half schedule, which - as coach Brian Billick puts it - has left them "vulnerable."

The Ravens went 4-3 against teams with a combined record of 15-36 (.294). Now, presuming a 10-6 mark will earn a playoff spot, the Ravens have to win at least six of their remaining nine games against teams with a combined record of 39-26 (.600).

The difference in competition goes beyond the records.

After losing to the NFL's three worst defenses, the Ravens will face three of the top four (Pittsburgh, New England and Indianapolis).

And after playing five of the lowest-rated quarterbacks (Trent Edwards, Matt Leinart, Trent Dilfer, Kellen Clemens and Gus Frerotte all rank 41st or worse), the Ravens will meet four in the top 11 (Brady, Peyton Manning, Ben Roethlisberger and Derek Anderson).

"We'd better play better than we've been playing," offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden said. "If we play the same football we played the first seven games, we're not going to go where we want to go."

One outside observer, former Ravens receiver Qadry Ismail, hasn't ruled the Ravens out of the playoff picture.

"In my heart of hearts, once you get by these three division games, we're really going to see the makeup of this team," said Ismail, who is now an NFL analyst for ESPN. "If you take care of your division, then things will fall into place. I think this is a team that desperately needs confidence."

The second-half run is set up in three different legs.

The first three-game stretch should tell the Ravens where they sit in the AFC North. Already 0-2 in the division, the Ravens travel to Pittsburgh and play Cincinnati and Cleveland at home.

The next three-game span should tell the Ravens where they stack up in the usually tough AFC. The Ravens play at San Diego, which has won three straight games, before returning home to face New England and Indianapolis, the only undefeated teams in the league.

If the Ravens can survive those games, the last three-game cluster features consecutive road games against Miami and Seattle and the regular-season finale against Pittsburgh at M&T; Bank Stadium.

"We can't fool anybody, and we're not going to lie to one another. Every game from here on out, we have to win," Mason said. "We can't afford to lose, especially in our division. If anyone says we can afford to lose one game or two games, they would be lying to themselves.

"We have to win every game from here on out. Are we going to do so? We have the talent to do it, yes. We have to keep that focus from here on out in order to go on a run that we know we're capable of going on, and it starts with Pittsburgh."

A breakdown of the Ravens' final nine games

Monday: @Pittsburgh

Cause for concern: Steelers have allowed 19 total points in three home games.

Reason for optimism: Ravens dominated the Steelers last season, outscoring them 58-7.

Nov. 11: Cincinnati

Cause for concern: Carson Palmer is 2-1 in three starts at M&T; Bank Stadium.

Reason for optimism: Bengals, off to their worst start since 2004, are close to melting down.

Nov. 18: Cleveland

Cause for concern: Cleveland's offense is clicking, scoring 27.7 points a game.

Reason for optimism: Ravens have beaten the Browns four straight times at home.

Nov. 25: @San Diego

Cause for concern: Chargers are beginning to look like the team everyone expected to see.

Reason for optimism: Chargers are still coached by Norv Turner.

Dec. 3: New England

Cause for concern: Tom Brady is on pace to throw for 60 touchdowns.

Reason for optimism: Ravens secondary could match up well with New England's receivers.

Dec. 9: Indianapolis

Cause for concern: Colts have won four straight vs. the Ravens, including the past two trips to Baltimore by a combined 39-13.

Reason for optimism: Peyton Manning has a 79.2 rating in his past three games vs. the Ravens.

Dec. 16: @Miami

Cause for concern: The Dolphins have to beat somebody at some point, right?

Reason for optimism: Miami will struggle to crack the end zone with Cleo Lemon at quarterback and Jesse Chatman at running back.

Dec. 23: @Seattle

Cause for concern: Traveling cross-country this late in the season will be a challenge.

Reason for optimism: Ravens are 10-3 against the NFC West, including 3-0 this season.

Dec. 30: Pittsburgh

Cause for concern: Steelers are a very balanced team: fourth in offense, first in defense.

Reason for optimism: Ravens have beaten the Steelers four straight times at home.

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