"You have to defend big plays to win a football game," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "And, you have to find a way to make plays on both sides of the ball." (Kevin Richardson/Baltimore Sun video)
By about midway through the fourth quarter, after Russell Wilson had thrown his fifth touchdown pass against a woefully overmatched Ravens defense, many Seattle Seahawks fans made their way to the lower bowl at M&T Bank Stadium.
They waived 12th man flags and chanted for their team, drowning out boos from Ravens fans who bravely stayed until the end. So, this is what playing out the string in December looks and sounds like in Baltimore?
What was billed before the season as a marquee matchup rife with postseason implications took on the appearance of a preseason game, with more Ravens offensive starters out than in and half-empty stadium long before the final whistle.
The Ravens' 35-6 loss to the Seahawks before an announced 71,179 was every bit as one-sided as the score indicated, and it brought a sense of finality to one of the worst seasons in franchise history.
"These next three games, they're kind of the start of our next season," fullback Kyle Juszczyk said after a game in which the Ravens rushed for 28 yards on 14 plays and were outscored 21-0 in the second half. "We can use these games to start to develop the team that we're going to put on the field for 2016."
The loss mathematically eliminates the Ravens from playoff contention, although common sense dictated weeks ago that this team, which was a chic Super Bowl pick, wasn't going to the postseason. Now 4-9 with three games to play – all against teams in playoff contention – the Ravens also are guaranteed their first losing season in John Harbaugh's eight-year tenure.
"We've walked through this together. It has been a really, really tough season, right from the get go," Harbaugh said. "There hasn't been any break, really, from it. We haven't been good enough to overcome misfortune, or the mistakes that we've made. There's no magical thing that you say. … We just have to find a way to get better. We have to improve. It goes now. It goes on into next year. It's where we're at right now."
What remains in play is the Ravens tying the inaugural 1997 team for the worst record in team history. That team went 4-12, which the Ravens can match with season-ending losses to the Kansas City Chiefs (8-5), Pittsburgh Steelers (8-5) and Cincinnati Bengals (10-3). The Ravens figure to be significant underdogs in those games.
What also is still not out of the question is the Ravens finishing with the first overall NFL draft pick. The Cleveland Browns' victory over the San Francisco 49ers pulls them one game closer to the Ravens.
The Browns, Tennessee Titans and San Diego Chargers are all 3-10, while the Ravens, 49ers, Dallas Cowboys and Detroit Lions each have four wins. The Jacksonville Jaguars, New Orleans Saints and St. Louis Rams won their fifth games Sunday.
"It would be very easy to tuck our tails in and call it quits right now, but that ain't on nobody's mind," Ravens defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan said. "The biggest thing for us is to keep our head up and keep fighting. At the end of the day, it's kind of been the story of the season this year. Everybody goes through them now and then. It [stinks] this year that it was us. We've just got to keep fighting."
The Ravens' lopsided loss to the Seahawks, which ended an NFL-record string of 12 straight games decided by eight points or fewer to start a season, wasn't a matter of giving up. It was a case of being outclassed by a far more talented team that seems primed for a third straight Super Bowl run. Seattle (8-5) broke open a 14-6 game at halftime when Wilson threw three touchdown passes in a 15-minute stretch spanning the third and fourth quarters.
Wilson found Doug Baldwin, who ran right past linebacker Daryl Smith and cornerback Shareece Wright, for a 22-yard touchdown pass to make to make it a 21-6 game. He hit rookie Tyler Lockett, who badly beat cornerback Lardarius Webb down the sideline, for a 49-yard score on the first play of the fourth quarter. And then he culminated a brilliant afternoon by finding Baldwin for a 16-yard touchdown, the wide receiver's third of the game. On that play, Baldwin fooled Webb so badly that the Ravens cornerback fell down.
Over the past four games, Wilson has thrown 16 touchdown passes and no interceptions. The Ravens had hoped to use the game against a quality offense to show how much their defense had improved. Instead, the game marked a reappearance of the Ravens pass defense from September and October. Wilson had so much time and so many open wide receivers to throw to that it didn't look like he broke a sweat.
"Worst we played all year, by far," said Harbaugh, who spent one television timeout kneeling in front of the secondary, trying to iron out issues that the group hasn't corrected this year. "It was bad."
Starting for an injured Matt Schaub less than three weeks after the Ravens claimed him off waivers, Jimmy Clausen completed 23 of 40 passes for a career-high 274 yards, no touchdowns and one interception.
Clausen wasn't really the problem. The problem was Seattle's second-ranked defense, which forced two turnovers and completely nullified the running game. Actually, the Ravens primary issue was on display before the game -- so many offensive starters on the sidleine wore sweat suits and ball caps rather than football uniforms.
Starting running back Justin Forsett, his left arm in a cast, posed for pictures. On crutches, wide receiver Steve Smith Sr. greeted teammates and some members of the Seahawks who came over to say hello. Tight end Dennis Pitta and wide receivers Darren Waller, Michael Campanaro and Marlon Brown – all either inactive or on injured reserve – were on the sideline when the game began.
"If you asked me three months ago what I'd be seeing right now at this time, I wouldn't expect to be saying that," Juszczyk said. "But the NFL is tough. Everyone is pretty equal when it comes to talent, and sometimes, things just don't go your way. This is a great opportunity for us to learn, though."
That's about all the Ravens can do at this point. There are three games remaining and nothing tangible to gain in the standings. For the first time since 2007, the Ravens will enter a regular-season game having already been eliminated from the playoffs.
"I wouldn't say that any of these last games don't matter," cornerback Jimmy Smith said. "I don't think we can make the playoffs, obviously, but everybody is being evaluated – everybody, every single coach, every single player. So, these last three games are important for every single person in this organization."