Not much room for error as Ravens make playoff push

Wide receivers Steve Smith Sr. and Mike Wallace shared neighboring lockers at Gillette Stadium, but their outlook on the Ravens' current situation differed significantly.

The 30-23 loss to the New England Patriots on Monday night "puts us behind the eight ball," Smith said following the game. "I was hoping we could play this game and also beat [the Pittsburgh Steelers], and icing on the cake. Now, we have fish sticks, which is a terrible dinner. Garbage."


A few minutes later, Wallace voiced the opinion that the loss to the AFC-best Patriots, while frustrating, doesn't change a thing.

"To me, it was going to come down to the game in Pittsburgh regardless," he said. "You obviously want to win every game you play, but unfortunately, that's not the way the game goes. We have an opportunity to win the division. No matter if we won today, win next week, we still have to beat Pittsburgh to win the division. It goes through them. It's been like that for the last four weeks. That's how it's going to be."


In his post-game speech to his team, Ravens coach John Harbaugh reminded his players of the opportunity still at hand. He then urged them to shower, get dressed and board the team buses as soon as possible so the Ravens (7-6) could return to Baltimore and leave Gillette Stadium behind.

What's in front of the Ravens is a clear — yet difficult — path to the postseason. If they win their final three games, starting with Sunday's regular-season home finale against the struggling Philadelphia Eagles (5-8) and continuing on Christmas Day at Pittsburgh (8-5) and on New Year's Day at the Cincinnati Bengals (5-7-1), the Ravens will win the AFC North.

If they lose to the Steelers on Christmas, they'll need to beat the Eagles and Bengals and get a significant amount of help — the Denver Broncos (8-5) and Miami Dolphins (8-5) dropping two of their final three games and the Tennessee Titans (7-6) losing one of their final three — to secure the final AFC wild-card spot.

"We know where we stand and the situation we are in, and that we basically have to win three games, and we're certainly fully capable of doing that," Harbaugh said. "That's what we intend to do, but all the focus goes to the next game. It's a very good Eagles team that we are playing on a short week. We've got to get healthy and we've got to get rested and we've got to get prepared. We've got to go play our best football next Sunday in M&T Bank Stadium. We are making a run for the AFC North tile and it starts with that game. We have to win that game."

The Steelers renew their rivalry Sunday against the Bengals in a challenging road game. The combined record of the Broncos' three remaining opponents — the Patriots, Kansas Chiefs and Oakland Raiders — is 31-8. The Dolphins have games left against the struggling New York Jets and Buffalo Bills, and a Patriots team that might have nothing to play for by Week 17. The Dolphins have to win without starting quarterback Ryan Tannehill and starting center Mike Pouncey, both injured. The Titans have to play the AFC West-leading Chiefs on the road Sunday.

It's not a complete reach to suggest the Ravens could get the final wild-card spot with a 9-7 record, but they're going to need to play a lot better than they did against the Patriots. Special teams miscues, a punchless offense and an overwhelmed defense contributed to the Ravens falling behind by scores of 16-0 and 23-3. Thanks to two Patriots turnovers, the Ravens rallied to make it a three-point game in the fourth quarter, but they couldn't stop Tom Brady and company when it counted.

"We've got three games," Harbaugh said. "We have to go out there and we have to play dangerous; we have to play reckless. We have to play to win, not to lose."

The Ravens will return to work Wednesday with a few new faces and minus return specialist Devin Hester Sr. A day after he twice failed to field punts and let the ball bounce, pinning the offense at the 1 and 2-yard lines, Hester was waived by the Ravens.

For all his career successes, the move seemed overdue, as Hester struggled in his first season as a Raven. He fumbled five times, losing the ball once, and he shared responsibility in the Ravens averaging just 6.8 yards per punt return, which ranked 26th in the NFL. In recent weeks, the 34-year-old and potential Hall of Famer seemed reluctant to field punts in traffic, and the Patriots' game was the latest example of his decisions costing the Ravens valuable field position. On the first play from scrimmage after Hester's first lapse in judgment, the Patriots tackled rookie Kenneth Dixon in the end zone for a safety.

The Ravens didn't announce a corresponding move for a kick returner, but they are expected to promote wide receiver Michael Campanaro (River Hill) from the practice squad. Campanaro, who played with the Ravens the previous two seasons, has been on the practice squad since Nov. 7, and Harbaugh has praised his work in practice on several occasions. He has experience fielding punts.

The Ravens also moved third-year running back Lorenzo Taliaferro (hamstring) to injured reserve and signed free agent inside linebacker Lamar Louis to the active roster. Taliaferro played in three games, getting one carry for zero yards, after he was activated from the physically unable to perform list because of a foot injury. He's missed the last four weeks with a hamstring injury.

An undrafted free agent out of LSU, Louis, 23, has had stints with the Arizona Cardinals and New Orleans Saints this season. He played in one game with the Cardinals before he was released with an injury settlement.


With cornerbacks Jimmy Smith (ankle) and Jerraud Powers (concussion) dealing with injuries, the Ravens might need to make a move or two before the Eagles' game to upgrade the depth in their defensive backfield.

But there are only so many changes the Ravens can make at this stage of the season. Several players indicated following the Patriots' game that what they have is good enough to get to the postseason. However, with three games to go, the Ravens are left with no margin of error.

"It all starts with Philadelphia next week," Ravens rush linebacker Terrell Suggs said. "I'm not worried about anybody else. We have a huge game against Philadelphia next week. We'll take care of business there and then we can talk about the rest of the season. But we have a big one against Philadelphia."


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