Ravens head coach John Harbaugh on the teams 39-38 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers. (Kevin Richardson / Baltimore Sun video)
Ravens defensive leaders Terrell Suggs and C.J. Mosley spoke quietly in the corner of the visiting locker room at Heinz Field, reviewing some of the plays that led to another blown lead and bitter loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Across from the two linebackers, several defensive backs spoke in hushed tones. Safety Tony Jefferson, slumped in a chair and with his head in his hands, sat a couple of lockers down from them. Jefferson remained in that position despite outside linebacker Matthew Judon imploring the first-year Raven to pick his head up.
A 39-38 loss Sunday night to the Steelers, who overcame an 11-point deficit early in the fourth-quarter and a nine-point deficit in the final five minutes to win on Chris Boswell’s 46-yard field goal with 42 seconds remaining, will certainly challenge the Ravens’ resolve. But as several players pointed out before leaving the locker room after the game, it won’t change the team’s playoff outlook if the Ravens just take care of business against opponents playing out the string.
“This one is going to hurt, but it’s best for us to have a short memory on this one. If we win out, there’s a good chance that we’ll be in,” Suggs said. “We’ve got to win three games. We’ve got to win next week in Cleveland.”
The loss dropped the Ravens to 7-6 ahead of Sunday’s game against the winless Browns at FirstEnergy Stadium. The Tennessee Titans (8-5) hold the fifth seed and the first wild-card spot. The Ravens, Buffalo Bills and Los Angeles Chargers are bidding for the second wild-card spot and the sixth seed.
If the Ravens win out, beating the Browns on Sunday and then closing out their home schedule with victories against the Indianapolis Colts and Cincinnati Bengals, they are guaranteed a wild-card spot. That’s because if the Chargers, Bills and Ravens all win out, the Chargers would take the AFC West and the Ravens would win the common opponent tiebreaker over the Bills. The common opponent tiebreaker doesn’t kick in until teams have at least four common opponents, which the Ravens and Bills will by season’s end.
“We're looking forward to the opportunity to win the next game and what that entails,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said Monday. “We're in it. We've earned our way to be in it. We're right there to earn a wild-card berth, but there are three games left and we've got to make it happen for ourselves. We understand that. Talked about it last night in the locker room with the guys. The guys have been in today talking about it. We're excited about that. It's a big challenge.”
Harbaugh wasn’t expansive on other matters in his traditional day-after game news conference. Perhaps that was by design. After the loss to the Steelers, the Ravens spoke in the locker room about putting the game behind them and focusing on the opportunity ahead.
“We’ve already talked about it,” said running back Alex Collins, who had 166 yards of total offense and a touchdown against the Steelers. “We said what we had to say about the game. We’re going to watch film, correct any mistakes that we made and just move forward and focus on Cleveland. We’ve got another away game on the road and we’ve got to get ready for those games. We’re going to be on our ‘A’ game to finish our season strong.”
Still, there is still a lot to digest from the highest-scoring game between the Ravens and Pittsburgh in the history of the rivalry. The Ravens overcame a deficit a 14-0 deficit to take leads of 31-20 and 38-29. The Steelers then scored the game’s final 10 points in a span of less than three minutes late in the fourth quarter.
The offense, not long ago viewed as the clear weak link of the team and a possible impediment to the team making the playoffs, gained 413 total yards and scored points on six of its final nine drives while relying largely on the Collins-led run game. Meanwhile, the defense, which carried the team through the first half of the season, started slowly, allowing points on the Steelers’ first four drives and collapsed late, giving up 19 fourth-quarter points. Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger threw for 228 yards in that quarter alone and 506 for the game.
“This is going to sting for a while, especially for the guys on defense because we care so much,” Ravens safety Eric Weddle said. “We hold ourselves to a high standard. But look, we've got three games — two of them at home — that if we win, we're going to go into the playoffs with a three-game winning streak and six out of seven. Hopefully this will just build our character and make us better in the long run.”
In a fitting twist given the up-and-down nature of the season for the Ravens, the team’s offensive improvement over the past couple of weeks — “It’s coming together,” wide receiver Mike Wallace said — has come at a time where the defense is taking on water without top cornerback Jimmy Smith. Since Smith went down with a torn Achilles tendon against the Detroit Lions, the Ravens have allowed 59 points in six quarters.
The good news for the Ravens is they won’t face any high-performing offenses the rest of the way. The collective record of the Ravens’ final three opponents is 8-31, and the Browns, Colts and Bengals rank 23rd, 31st and 32nd in total offense, respectively. However, the Ravens will surely bring up this week that the Browns have gotten star wideout Josh Gordon back and they’ve lost five games by six points or fewer, that the Colts have dropped two games in overtime and three others by four points or fewer, and that the Bengals have given them significant problems during Harbaugh’s tenure.
In a season during which nothing has come easily, the Ravens don’t expect their playoff push to be that way either.
“We've got to go on the road and beat Cleveland and then we've got to come back and beat Indianapolis and then we've got to come back and beat Cincinnati. It's the National Football League,” Harbaugh said. “Those will be three very challenging football games for us, but we're capable of doing it. We expect to do it. But we've got to have all hands on deck for the next challenge and that's what we're going to do.”