The Ravens are 45-13 at M&T Bank Stadium under coach John Harbaugh. With the rest of the schedule heavy with home games, can the Ravens get on a roll?
The white sheet of paper with the number 23 written on it in black ink is still prominently displayed in Elvis Dumervil's locker, a reminder of a time when hopes were high and the possibilities seemed endless.
To the Ravens outside linebacker, the sign, adorned with the number of sacks Dumervil would need to break former New York Giant Michael Strahan's single-season NFL record, represented both a personal and team goal. The way Dumervil saw it, if he was able to take down the quarterback that many times, the Ravens were going to create a ton of turnovers, have a dominant defense and win a lot of games.
Seven weeks into the season, Dumervil has just 2 1/2 sacks and the Ravens have only one win. As they head into Sunday's game against the also-disappointing San Diego Chargers (2-5) at M&T Bank Stadium, the Ravens' only hope to make something of their season is to discover the home dominance that they've enjoyed in the past.
"This game is all about the win-loss column," Dumervil said. "The guys understand the urgency of it all. We really don't have much space for error. The good thing is, we have six of our last nine games at home, and the other three games are in places we're very familiar traveling to. We are optimistic, man. But we have to take care of this last game before the bye week."
A team considered a Super Bowl contender just two months ago, the Ravens now share the league's worst record with the Detroit Lions. Nobody at the Under Armour Performance Center has dared to utter the word "playoffs" in several weeks, which is fitting, because no 1-6 team has ever qualified for the postseason.
But the Ravens aren't ready to concede anything, either. None of their next seven games are against teams with winning records. After playing five of their first seven games away from home and accumulating almost 15,000 frequent-flyer miles, the road back to respectability will start at M&T Bank Stadium, where the Ravens will be for most of November.
The Ravens are 45-13 under coach John Harbaugh at home, though two of those losses came this year. The Ravens have never lost three straight home games in Harbaugh's eight-season tenure.
"We're not making any assumptions about anything," Harbaugh said. "We're going to go out there and play as well as we can possibly play, to the highest possible level that we can play. That's our goal every single week. We don't have to put caveats on it. … That's not for us to do. We're going to go out there and get after it. That's our plan."
Or as veteran cornerback Lardarius Webb put it: "It doesn't matter where this next one's going to be at. We need it. We could have had it in Australia. We need this victory, no matter what."
While the frustration of certain players is palpable, the Ravens have managed to avoid the finger-pointing and locker-room divide that traditionally accompanies lost seasons. Effort hasn't been the problem; execution clearly has.
The Ravens are the only team in NFL history to lose six of their first seven games by one score. ESPN recently dubbed them the NFL's "best worst team ever."
"The hardest thing this year for everyone is the way we're losing. We're losing a lot of close games," veteran wide receiver Steve Smith Sr. said. "I think that takes a lot out of guys, but these guys are responding, they are practicing hard. Nobody is coming here and giving up. Winning is very contagious. When you win one or two, all of a sudden, you start to go in and feel that confidence. Right now, we have to earn the confidence of our fans and even of ourselves and say: 'Hey, we can finish a game.' "
In nine of Smith's 13 seasons in Carolina, the Panthers didn't have a winning record. Middle linebacker Daryl Smith, who described the Ravens as desperate, was part of some trying times with the Jacksonville Jaguars.
But for so many other Ravens, the team is rapidly approaching unfamiliar territory. Since the era of Harbaugh and Joe Flacco began in 2008, the Ravens have never entered a regular-season game out of playoff contention.
Players such as Flacco, Webb, left guard Kelechi Osemele, outside linebacker Courtney Upshaw, cornerback Jimmy Smith and kicker Justin Tucker have never been part of a losing NFL season. Cornerback Kyle Arrington, a former New England Patriot, has been on playoff teams in each of his first six NFL campaigns. Then there are players such as C.J. Mosley, who did nothing but win at Alabama and was a key contributor during the Ravens' playoff run last year.
"At any level, whether you're 5 years old, playing in a park league, or you're in the NFL, you don't want to lose any games," said Mosley, who described the Ravens' home stretch as a blessing in disguise. "That's just the nature of the NFL. You're going to lose some games. We're looking forward. We're not thinking about the losses or dwelling on the past. It's still the middle of the season, and we could still turn our season around and make it better than what it is."
Voice of experience
Steve Smith, who has emerged as the Ravens' vocal leader in just his second year in the organization, acknowledged that he has spent significant time in recent weeks counseling young players about the importance of maintaining professionalism and a strong work ethic, regardless of the team's record.
"Some of these guys who haven't lost, who have been on these top college teams, they haven't been professionals, either, and they haven't had to deal with some things," Smith said. "All of it is new, but at the end of it, we're still playing for something. I've told some of these guys, with the season that we're having, you may not think about it, but you're getting evaluated. You're getting evaluated by your team. And obviously, if things continue to go the way they are, you may get evaluated by other teams."
Change occurs every offseason, and the Ravens deal with more turnover than most teams. But if they lose to San Diego and enter the bye week 1-7, the process could be accelerated. Harbaugh said recently that he has no plans to make any imminent moves on his coaching staff, but if he changed his mind, the bye week would be the time to do it.
As for personnel, if the Ravens are essentially eliminated from playoff contention, they could be compelled to play and evaluate some of their younger players at the expense of veterans with uncertain futures. Some players would have less incentive to try to play through injuries.
Dumervil understands what will happen if the Ravens keep losing. "That's the business part," he said. "Historically, it's always been that way." He also knows that the Ravens can delay such talk by beating the Chargers and reeling off a couple of wins.
"You can't get frustrated. I always feel wins and sacks come in bunches. I'm a true believer in that," he said. "I really feel that we will turn it around as far as the win column and as far as me, personally. I'm sure those numbers will come — maybe not as high as I anticipated them to be. But one thing you can be sure of: I'm going to come after every team every game. That will never change."