Before this season turned ugly, Steve Bisciotti hadn't had a whole lot of laments during his time as Ravens owner. But in a moment of introspection last February, Bisciotti acknowledged what he believed to be one of the biggest shortcomings of the Ravens' brain trust in recent years.
"We have to beat Pittsburgh and Cincinnati more consistently, and we have to start claiming that AFC North title before we start looking forward to accomplishing greater things," Bisciotti said during the annual "State of the Ravens" address. "That's a little bit of a smudge on our resume, and we're well aware of it."
Ten months later, the Ravens are again looking up at the Bengals and Steelers in the standings, and the gap between the three franchises is wider than it has been in several seasons. When the Ravens (4-10) face the Steelers and Bengals over the final two weeks of the regular season, they'll be playing out the string while their division foes are priming themselves for potential playoff runs.
The Steelers could secure an AFC wild-card spot Sunday afternoon with a victory over the Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium, coupled with a New York Jets loss to the New England Patriots. The Bengals (11-3) could clinch their second AFC North title in the past three seasons with a win Monday night against the Denver Broncos or a victory in their Jan. 3 regular-season finale against the Ravens at Paul Brown Stadium.
That the Ravens could be forced to witness both of their biggest rivals clinch would be the latest indignities in a season full of them.
"We don't think that those guys are any better than us," Ravens defensive lineman Timmy Jernigan said. "At the end of the day, we know that they have a better record than us. Their season is going a little bit more like they planned, rather than how we planned ours to go. I feel like that's the only difference standing between us."
The numbers, however, suggest otherwise. The Ravens won the AFC North in back-to-back years in 2011 and 2012, but they are headed for a third consecutive third-place finish, and that's only if they can hold off the last-place Cleveland Browns (3-11) over the final two weeks.
Since winning the division and ultimately Super Bowl XLVII to cap the 2012 campaign, the Ravens have missed the postseason in two of three seasons. They did, however, qualify last season and knocked out the Steelers on their home field.
Pittsburgh is in the driver's seat to making the postseason for a second straight year after a two-year postseason hiatus. Marvin Lewis' Bengals have already nailed down a fifth straight playoff berth, although they have yet to win a postseason game during that span.
"If we had a poor division, that'd be great," joked Ravens coach John Harbaugh, whose team has won two division titles in his eight seasons at the helm. "We don't have a poor division. We have an excellent division, and that's our challenge. We're up for it. We're not scared. We're not backing down."
A number of Ravens contended that this year is an aberration, rather than a sign that the team is slipping down the division's hierarchy. Injuries have decimated the team's nucleus, knocking out the Ravens' starting quarterback, running back, center, left tackle, top receiver, tight end and most accomplished pass rusher.
"I think they've had the injury bug pretty bad, and it's one of those seasons for them that you've got to deal with a lot of injuries to a lot of key positions and players," said Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, whose team has survived myriad injuries of its own. "This is still a big game; it's the AFC North. It's big for us. They beat us here at our place. You've got to throw records out the window when you play AFC North football."
Nose tackle Brandon Williams said that even with a banged-up roster, the Ravens can play with the Steelers and Bengals.
"They know it, too," Williams said. "We've just had some things that didn't go our way. We're going to come out here and fight no matter what. That's just how we are, that's how we're made up. Just because it's the last two games of the season doesn't mean we're going to turn over and play dead. They know that they're going to be in a fight."
The Ravens lost to the Bengals, 28-24, at home on Sept. 27, continuing a disturbing trend. Cincinnati has beaten the Ravens in five of their past six meetings dating to December 2012. Meanwhile, the Ravens downed the Roethlisberger-less Steelers, 23-20, in overtime at Heinz Field on Oct. 1. The Ravens have claimed four of the past five matchups against Pittsburgh, including the wild-card game in January.
With the 2015 season already a lost cause, the bigger concern for Bisciotti and the front office is how the Ravens will match up with their two divisional rivals in the future. There's nothing to indicate that the Bengals and Steelers might slip.
The Bengals are loaded with in-their-prime playmakers like running backs Giovani Bernard and Jeremy Hill, wide receiver A.J. Green, tight end Tyler Eifert and defensive lineman Geno Atkins. Quarterback Andy Dalton's much-improved play before he went out with a thumb injury — he could be back for the playoffs — has given Bengals fans hope that the organization is an emerging AFC power.
Pittsburgh boasts a young defense and arguably the best collection of offensive skill players in the league with Roethlisberger surrounded by a group that — when healthy — includes running back Le'Veon Bell and wide receivers Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant and Markus Wheaton.
The Ravens, meanwhile, have been weakened by injuries, annual free-agent defections and a handful of early round draft misses. With four offensive coordinators in as many years, the Joe Flacco-led offense has been constantly in flux and lacks the number of weapons that other teams in the division have. Defensively, the Ravens haven't found the right mix of veterans and ready-to-contribute young players.
"Obviously, this is not a circumstance or a situation I would like to be in," outside linebacker Elvis Dumervil said. "I didn't come here for that, but in life … it's how you respond to things. One thing we're going to do is we're going to try to finish this season as strong as we can and build on it."
The Ravens are currently projected to pick third in the 2016 draft, which would be the highest they've ever selected. A good draft will be pivotal, and so will getting some of their top players healthy for next season. As things stand, the difference in the Ravens' talent level compared to what the Bengals and Steelers are currently putting on the field is glaring.
However, right guard Marshal Yanda said the Ravens aren't ready to concede anything, even as the days to this lost season wind down.
"When we play good football teams, we want to play our best football, and there's nothing more that needs to be said," he said. "Obviously, they're in our division, and we look forward to playing them every year and beating them."