This was supposed to be the portion of the schedule where the Ravens made their move. It, however, wasn't expected to go in this direction.
As the Ravens got back to work Monday and began preparations for a prime-time game against the Miami Dolphins, they couldn't escape the reality that their season is quickly unraveling. Sunday's thorough 24-16 loss to the Minnesota Vikings was their fourth defeat in the past five games, and it looked much like the ones that preceded it with an offense that is among the NFL's worst by just about every metric and a defense that has buckled while trying to keep the team afloat.
Their latest challenge is trying to piece together both with just three days to prepare for Thursday night's game against the Dolphins.
"You've got to overcome that emotional hurt, pain, whatever it is, right away," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said after Monday's walk-through practice. "You have to put it behind you right now. You've got to be tough, you've got to go play on Thursday night against a team that's on a roll. That's our job. We have to get it done, but our guys are up for it."
The season has yet to hit its official midpoint, and at 3-4, the Ravens are already clinging to slipping playoff hopes. They are two games behind the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC North and only three AFC teams — the Cincinnati Bengals, Indianapolis Colts and Cleveland Browns — have worse records.
The frustration was evident throughout the visiting locker room Sunday at U.S. Bank Stadium, particularly in the words and demeanor of the team leaders. Safety Eric Weddle, one of the most upbeat Ravens, acknowledged that the defense is playing with "zero" margin of error and grew annoyed with a question about the team's confidence level. The normally playful Terrell Suggs looked even more down than he has after some difficult playoff losses over the years and conceded, "Right now, we stink."
The Ravens struck a more optimistic tone after Monday's practice. The team, which was beaten up physically in Sunday's loss, has a condensed practice schedule this week before the game against a Dolphins team that has won three straight games and is 4-2.
"It has to stop as quickly as possible and that would lead to this Thursday," quarterback Joe Flacco said Monday. "We have to get this thing going to the point where we're putting up points and putting our team in position to win football games. It doesn't matter how we do it, but we have to find a way."
A win Thursday and the Ravens would be right in the playoff mix. Only seven of the 16 AFC teams will take a winning record into Week 8. The mass of mediocrity provides hope, as should a relatively favorable schedule.
For the fourth straight week, the Ravens will likely face a team that won't have its Week 1 starting quarterback on the field. Miami starter Jay Cutler suffered cracked ribs in Sunday's victory over the New York Jets, paving the way for Matt Moore to start against the Ravens.
After the Dolphins game, the Ravens face the up-and-down Tennessee Titans, and after a bye week, they have a road matchup against the Green Bay Packers, who have lost their franchise quarterback, Aaron Rodgers.
Of course, the opposing quarterback is wholly irrelevant if the Ravens don't soon fix the same problems that have cropped up every week and are threatening to derail their season. After all, the Ravens were already beaten by the Chicago Bears and their rookie quarterback, Mitchell Trubisky, who completed just eight passes in a 27-24 victory in overtime. On Sunday, Vikings backup Case Keenum threw for 188 yards, no touchdown passes and one interception, but Minnesota ran for 169 yards and a score.
"We just need to play sound football and do the things necessary to win," Weddle said Monday. "We're at home Thursday night and we expect to go out and play great and get a win against a good, tough team that's playing well right now. So I wouldn't say it's a must-win, but it's definitely a big-time game that we need to try and to do everything in our power to win."
The Ravens passing offense ranks last in the league, averaging just 157 yards per game. When Flacco found Chris Moore for a 13-yard touchdown with no time on the clock in the fourth quarter Sunday, it was the team's first offensive touchdown in nearly 11 quarters and the quarterback's first touchdown pass in 14 quarters.
"The fact that I've been up and down, now you're climbing out of a hole. You're putting yourself behind the eight ball," Flacco said. "I definitely have to be more consistent week to week. The way we're playing right now, the way we've played the last few weeks, has been pretty conservatively. We're probably not going to go out there and put up 40 points. In a game like Chicago, you can look at a couple of plays and say, 'Listen, we played the game mostly how we wanted to.' And if it wasn't for three plays, we might not have had a great day on offense, but we would have played winning football. Those are the kinds of games we're playing right now. We can't make mistakes. We're probably not going to put up 42 points, but what we do on offense, we've got to do well."
Harbaugh again expressed support for Flacco, praising him for how he's dealt with so many moving pieces on offense and saying: "There are going to be a lot of good times ahead for Joe Flacco. Stick with him. It's going to be fun to watch."
Even more surprising, the Ravens' run defense, long a strength, will enter Thursday ranked last in the NFL in yards allowed per game (145.3 yards). The unit has allowed 165 yards or more on the ground in four of the past five games and an individual 100-yard rusher in three of the past four games. Those numbers are unheard of with the Ravens, and everybody in their locker room knows that they won't start winning again unless they stop the run.
"It's a yucky taste in our mouths right now. All hands are on deck right now — all 11 guys, back end and the front seven of course," cornerback Brandon Carr said. "We're going to iron this thing out. It's a long season. We're halfway there. We've got a lot of great football to play still."