Losing by 20 points to AFC North rival Pittsburgh Steelers is wakeup call to Baltimore Ravens with seven games remaining.
Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco dabbed at a small cut over his lip. Defensive end Chris Canty emerged from the training room with his hand and wrist heavily wrapped. Justin Forsett walked out of the visiting locker room at Heinz Field with a noticeable limp.
The Ravens had the look of a beaten team following their humbling 43-23 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday night and to them, the most painful thing of all was the realization of what has become of their 2014 season.
A little more than two weeks after being in position to put a stranglehold on the AFC North, the Ravens have reached a crossroad. With a 5-4 record and back-to-back losses to the division-leading Cincinnati Bengals and the Steelers, they are in last place in the AFC North, the latest that they've been in this position since 2007, former head coach Brian Billick's final season in Baltimore.
With seven games remaining, starting with Sunday's home game against the struggling Tennessee Titans, the Ravens are 11th in the 16-team AFC. A 2-4 conference record and a 2-3 mark against AFC North foes only add to the challenges that lay ahead.
Several players acknowledged that they were concerned, but vehemently disagreed that the Ravens were approaching desperation. Rush linebacker Terrell Suggs came the closest to sounding the alarm, saying that the Ravens needed to "assess and address everything."
"We've just go to be better. We can't be kidding ourselves anymore. We've got to go to work," he said. "We knew this was going to be a tough stretch for us. We knew it was going to be hard to go into Cincinnati and get one. We knew it was going to be hard to come [into Pittsburgh] and win one. In the last two games, we lost both of these games in every way possible. One was a close game and this one was a landslide victory for them. We just got to go to work."
Suggs acknowledged that a lot of things happened against the Steelers that worried him but he declined to reveal them, maintaining that the Ravens needed to improve in multiple areas. Some of those areas are pretty obvious.
The Ravens have turned the ball over seven times the past three weeks and the two second-quarter turnovers against the Steelers resulted in 14 points and completely changing the momentum of the game. The Ravens also went 3-of-13 on third downs against the Steelers. Their 40.9 conversion rate on third down ranks 18th in the NFL.
On defense, the Ravens' secondary, without top cornerback Jimmy Smith, was shredded for six touchdown passes by Ben Roethlisberger, his biggest day in 18 career games against the Ravens. Just six teams are allowing more passing yards per game than the Ravens are, a statistic that doesn't bode well with the matchups against Drew Brees' New Orleans Saints and Philip Rivers' San Diego Chargers in two of their next three games.
"Every team has weaknesses. Every team has things they have to scheme around and play around," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said Monday at his weekly day-after-game news conference. "We'll figure out how to do that. We just have to figure out how to win one game at a time. That's where we're at. It's going to be like that for the rest of the season, and we can do it. We're capable of doing it."
A resolute Harbaugh said that the team's last-place standing doesn't “make a difference” in how the team approaches the final seven games.
"When you look at the National Football League, this is the way it's going to be. We look at ourselves, we focus on ourselves, but every now and then, you have to raise your head up, take a peak on the horizon and see what's going on around the league. And you see that everybody has tough weeks," Harbaugh said. "It's going to be a fight to the end. We just got to make sure we're in the fight.
“That starts with moving forward right now, this week, to the next game, to Tennessee, a good football team coming in here to our place. We're going to have to play much better than we played the last two weeks in order to win this game and that's what our team will be 100 percent focused on.”
Harbaugh reviewed the Steelers' game film Monday and reiterated several of his concerns, mainly the team's turnover woes and failure to convert on third down. He said the team took too many penalties against the Steelers and he essentially challenged the Ravens' secondary to play better. He also noted that the team just hasn't been good enough to win on the road, where they have lost three consecutive games to quality teams.
“It is what it is. We've got to own it. There are no excuses,” strong-side linebacker Elvis Dumervil said after the Steelers loss. “There's a lot of football left, but our opportunities are narrowing down. We've just got to make sure we learn from this game. We have seven games left to try and take care of business.”
Of the Ravens' remaining seven opponents, just three have winning records. Four of the games are also at home, which is why Suggs said that the Ravens' path to the playoffs starts with taking care of their home field.
If the Ravens can get victories over the Titans (2-6), Chargers (5-4), Jacksonville Jaguars (1-8) and Cleveland Browns (5-3) at home, that will put them into position where they may only need to win one of their final three road games — at New Orleans (4-4), the Miami Dolphins (5-3) and the Houston Texans (4-5) — to get into the postseason.
But no Raven was at all interested in looking too far ahead following the Steelers loss. After getting dominated by their biggest rival, the suddenly last-place team knows it has plenty to fix and it had better happen soon.
"We've just got to focus on the next game," said wide receiver Torrey Smith (Maryland). "At this point, we don't control our own destiny and we understand that. We've just got to focus on the next game and get a win. We need one. It's frustrating any time you lose and you don't play the way you expect to play and you're capable of playing. It's definitely frustrating, but we've got to get over it and keep working. Nobody is going to feel sorry for us."