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Ravens' loss to Chargers leaves no margin for error in final four games

Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs.
Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs. (Karl Merton Ferron, Baltimore Sun)

Before departing a mostly empty locker room late Sunday afternoon, outside linebacker Terrell Suggs laid out the challenge the Ravens have in front of them and then issued a warning.

"Don't count us out yet," Suggs said.

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Suggs didn't deny that the Ravens' 34-33 loss to the San Diego Chargers at M&T Bank Stadium was a missed opportunity and a significant blow to the team's postseason hopes.

With four games to go, the Ravens have left themselves with no margin of error, both in the standings, where they are currently outside of the playoff picture with a 7-5 record, and on the field, where one of the league's worst passing defenses has put pressure on the rest of the team to do everything else right.

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"Especially as tough as our division is and as tough as our conference is, you can't afford to lose games down the stretch," Suggs said. "We have to play phenomenal this last quarter of the season. We have to learn from our mistakes, and we have to win out."

The Ravens' final four-game stretch starts Sunday in Miami against the Dolphins (6-5 entering Monday night's game against the New York Jets), and continues with a home game against the Jacksonville Jaguars (2-10) and a road matchup with the Houston Texans (6-6). It then ends with the regular-season finale against the Cleveland Browns (7-5).

"The good news is we wake up this morning, we look at the standings and we are right in the thick of it," coach John Harbaugh said Monday. "It's going to go down to the wire, and we have a huge game down in Miami this week. There will a lot on the line, and they'll be ready, and they're good. We'll have a great opportunity to make a move."

On paper, the Ravens have one of the easiest remaining schedules among any of the AFC postseason hopefuls, and there are many. Five conference teams have 7-5 records, with the Dolphins joining that crowd if they beat the New York Jets tonight.

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The Chargers, who are 8-4 and in possession of the first of two wild-card spots, still have to play home games against the New England Patriots and Denver Broncos — two 9-3 teams — and road games at the San Francisco 49ers and Kansas City Chiefs, both 7-5.

Along with facing San Diego, the Chiefs, who sit in the second wild-card slot, also have to go on the road and play the Arizona Cardinals (9-3) and Pittsburgh Steelers (7-5).

The Ravens aren't out of the AFC North race, though they trail the division-leading Cincinnati Bengals (8-3-1) by 1 1/2 games. Cincinnati still plays the Steelers twice and the Browns and Broncos.

"At the end of the day, you can't look at anybody else," wide receiver Jacoby Jones said. "We have to look at ourselves and we have to get Ws. Point blank."

The introspection started Monday as Harbaugh and the rest of the coaching staff broke down film of the loss to the Chargers.

The Ravens led the game for more than 55 minutes, but Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers directed three fourth-quarter scoring drives, the final one ending when he hit Eddie Royal for a 1-yard, go-ahead touchdown pass with just 38 seconds remaining. The Ravens got the ball back, but their drive stalled at the Chargers' 43 when wide receiver Kamar Aiken couldn't get out of bounds as time expired.

"It stung because we played our hearts out," Harbaugh said. "We just didn't play well enough to win the game at the end. We made mistakes, and it seemed like the mistakes that we made cost us. At the end, they made one more play and we didn't. We had a chance a couple of times down the stretch there to make the last play and win the game and we just weren't able to pull it off."

A day later, Harbaugh was focusing on the Dolphins and the opportunities that the Ravens still have in front of them. None of the players were panicking after Sunday's game either, but the sense of frustration was palpable.

In most facets, the Ravens played exactly how they wanted to play to win a game, and it still wasn't good enough.

Quarterback Joe Flacco threw for two touchdown passes and ran for another. Justin Forsett had 106 of the Ravens' 125 rushing yards. The Ravens didn't turn the ball over, while the Chargers lost the ball twice. Justin Tucker connected on all four of his field-goal attempts and the Ravens dominated the field possession battle.

And yet, despite scoring 33 points and playing at home, where they're normally dominant, they still lost, because they didn't convert enough red-zone trips into touchdowns, because they committed too many penalties and because their defense couldn't stop the Chargers.

"We have to do better," said strong-side linebacker Elvis Dumervil, who was flagged for three offside penalties in the game. "Rushing and coverage go hand in hand. They gave us some time to get back there sometimes, and sometimes it was the other way around. Collectively as a team, we just have to be more efficient."

Rivers completed 34 of 45 passes for 383 yards and three touchdowns and got pretty much whatever he wanted, just as the New Orleans Saints' Drew Brees did last week and the Steelers' Ben Roethlisberger did on Nov. 2. In four November games, the Ravens allowed 1,239 passing yards and 13 passing touchdowns.

Harbaugh said he doesn't sense the cornerbacks are having confidence issues but …

"We've got to make some plays back there," he said. "We had a couple things that were issues as far as assignments. It's not really an assignment, it's the way you play the routes. We didn't play the routes a couple times right, gave up a couple big plays. That's really what it boils down to. The other balls were contested balls and contested catches for the most part."

The struggles of the secondary, which should get some help with Asa Jackson's expected return this week from a toe injury, is the primary reason the Ravens now have the NFL's 31st passing defense, ahead of only the Atlanta Falcons, and are on pace on give up the most yards through the air in franchise history.

Can the Ravens win out — as Suggs suggests that they needed to do to make the playoffs — with the way the secondary is struggling? To do so, they are going to need to be near flawless in other areas, and that wasn't quite the case against the Chargers.

"It would have put ourselves in good position, but we find ourselves in good position anyway [with] the way it's shaking out," Harbaugh said. "It's going to be very competitive down to the wire to make the playoffs, to win the division, and we are in the thick of it. We're excited about that, and we're looking forward to taking advantage of that opportunity."

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Baltimore Sun reporter Aaron Wilson contributed to this article.

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