As they left the locker room Wednesday afternoon and headed their separate ways for what remained of the team’s bye week, Ravens players maintained that they were already looking ahead. That view was more encouraging than looking back on the first seven weeks.
After a 2-0 start, the Ravens lost five of seven games and rarely resembled a team that has earned a right to call itself a playoff contender. Yet, a cursory look at the standings, along with the Ravens’ schedule over the final seven games, suggests that while they may not currently pass the eye test as a playoff-caliber team, they are very much in the postseason mix.
Regardless of what happens in Sunday’s games, the Ravens (4-5) won’t lose too much ground among a mass of mediocrity in the AFC playoff picture. Three of the four division leaders — the New England Patriots, Kansas City Chiefs and Pittsburgh Steelers, have six wins. Beyond those conference favorites, three other teams, including the Tennessee Titans and Jacksonville Jaguars, co-leaders in the AFC South, have five wins. Four other teams are sitting on four wins.
“We’re right there,” Ravens wide receiver Mike Wallace said. “If we want it, we can take it. It’s right there. But we just have to go out and be aggressive, and just know that we can win these games.”
A few weeks ago, Ravens coach John Harbaugh expressed the belief that the team would probably need 10 wins to secure its second postseason berth since the 2012 season. Reminded earlier this week about his prediction, Harbaugh didn’t double down on the call.
“I am hoping whatever we get is going to be enough,” he said. “We are in it. There is no doubt about it, we are in it.”
To reach 10 wins, the Ravens are going to have to go 6-1 the rest of the way. Even the most optimistic Ravens fan would be hard pressed to project that for a team that hasn’t won back-to-back games since early September. However, a 5-2 finish and a final 9-7 regular-season record, which may or may not be good enough to quality for the playoffs, is more attainable.
The schedule is certainly in the Ravens’ favor. Starting next Sunday, when the Ravens travel to Lambeau Field to get their unofficial second half underway against the Green Bay Packers, the team will play only one team, a road game against the AFC North-leading Pittsburgh Steelers (6-2), that takes a winning record into Sunday’s action.
While other potential AFC wild card teams like the Buffalo Bills (5-3), Miami Dolphins (4-4) and Oakland Raiders (4-5) have remaining schedules that rank in the top-10 in terms of difficulty, the combined record of the Ravens’ final seven opponents is 23-34. The Ravens will also play four of their final seven games, and their last two, at M&T Bank Stadium.
“There is a lot of opportunity out there. We can’t dwell on the fact that we are 4-5. We can’t go back and change that. It is what it is, and we have to put that out of our mind the best we can,” Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco said. “We have to have a short memory and just go out there and play football. We can’t look ahead that far either because when you start doing that and you start trying to look at the big picture of everything every single day, that just wears on you mentally. It is just too much for us to handle.
“We have to take it one week at a time. It is cliché as it can be, but we have to do that. We have to look at what is important now, and for us, that is getting a little bit of a break here and focusing on the Green Bay Packers.”
In the Packers, the Ravens will be facing a team that is 0-3 since star quarterback Aaron Rodgers broke his collarbone on Oct. 15, and will have played two games before the Ravens were last on the field. The following week, the Ravens will host “Monday Night Football” and a 3-5 Houston Texans team that has lost quarterback Deshaun Watson and J.J. Watt among others.
After a matchup with the Steelers at Heinz Field, the Ravens will play their final road game of the season against the winless Cleveland Browns, followed by home matchups versus the Andrew Luck-less Indianapolis Colts (3-6) and the Cincinnati Bengals (3-5).
“We can win the division. We just have to get on a roll. You have to win enough games. The Steelers are going to be in some tough games, and they still have to play us. This is a tough league,” said Harbaugh, whose team is 2½ games behind the Steelers after losing to them at home on Oct. 1. “At no point in time are we going to say we can’t win the division or make the playoffs, but we have to get on a roll.
“We have to win a game. Then, we have to win another game. We have to win two, three, four games in a row. We may have to win them all. If we have to do it, that is what we have to do. That is how we are looking at it.”
When the Ravens return to practice this week, they will likely be as healthy as they’ve been all season. Running back Danny Woodhead, who has played one possession all year because of a hamstring injury, could return for the Packers’ game, giving Flacco another much-needed target. Running back Terrance West (calf), wide receiver/punt returner Michael Campanaro (shoulder) and tight end Nick Boyle (toe) also could all be back.
The bye week also should help freshen up the myriad of Ravens who have been playing through injuries, a list that includes Flacco (back/concussion), left tackle Ronnie Stanley (shoulder), rush linebacker Terrell Suggs (knee) and cornerback Jimmy Smith (Achilles).
But improved health isn’t a cure-all for an offense that ranks 30th in yards per game (286.6), 31st in passing yards per game (165.7) and 19th in points per game (21.1). It won’t necessarily open up the Ravens’ downfield passing game, eradicate turnovers or get the Ravens to play with more rhythm and precision.
“Besides one game, we’re in every single game. We just have to go and finish that and execute better and get those big plays on offense,” Wallace said. “With those big plays, it just gives everybody energy. It’s not so much about changing the game with the play. It’s just the atmosphere, the teammates, the fans. The energy just changes when you have those big plays in the game. We have the ability to do it, we just have to execute those plays. We have the players and the coaches. We just have to get it done.”
The Ravens spent their two bye week practices focusing on correcting some of their shortcomings over the first nine games. The players insist that despite how the team has played over the past month and a half, they’re not far from putting it all together. They point to the 30-17 road victory over the Raiders on Oct. 8 and the 40-0 blowout of the Dolphins on Oct. 26 as proof of what it looks like when everything clicks.
“This team definitely has confidence,” said starting weak-side linebacker Patrick Onwuasor. “We have the spark. We just have to make sure it stays on instead of going on and off. If we do that, I think everything will come together.”