It was a cold and soggy Saturday evening at M&T Bank Stadium, so you had to figure a lot of ticket holders would choose to watch the Ravens play the beleaguered Indianapolis Colts on television or take another last-gasp run at the mall.
Still, it was a must-win game against the team that deserted Baltimore, so the many thousands of empty seats left room to wonder just what it’s going to take for a large chunk of the Ravens faithful to regain their faith in the franchise.
Maybe we’ll find out next Sunday, when the Ravens close out the regular season against the division-rival Cincinnati Bengals with their playoff future still hanging in the balance.
The organization obviously is concerned. This is a team that has never had to beg anybody to come to its games no matter how bad the weather conditions or extenuating circumstances, so it’s pretty clear that discontent over the team’s dismal first half of the season has combined with the fallout from the London anthem protest to create a damaging disconnect with a significant number of fans.
Ravens president Dick Cass acknowledged that in a recent holiday letter to season-ticket holders that asked for their continued support, reminded them of the $120 million stadium renovation that is currently in progress and looked ahead to the prospect of the Ravens’ seventh playoff run in the past 10 seasons.
“We have had significant numbers of no-shows in the past when our play on the field has not met the high standard we and you have set for the Ravens,” he wrote, “but this year has been different. The numbers are higher, and it is noticeable. There are a number of reasons for the no-shows, but surely the one-time protest in London has been a factor.”
The letter wasn’t exactly an apology, but estranged fans probably ought to view it that way and accept it. The Ravens have turned their season around in a big way and need only to defeat the struggling Bengals to get back to the postseason for the first time since 2014. If they succeed, they could be a formidable playoff team after winning six of their final seven regular-season games.
Maybe Ravens fans have gotten a bit jaded. There was a time earlier in the John Harbaugh era when it was fair to consider a playoff berth almost automatic, but ask fans in about 25 other NFL cities and they’ll tell you that making the postseason seven out of 10 years would be a pretty special achievement.
If you need some perspective, remember how bad it felt when the Pittsburgh Steelers stormed back in the final minute to knock the Ravens out of playoff consideration in Week 16 last year … or when the Bengals trounced them in Week 17 of 2013 to give the final wild-card berth to the San Diego Chargers.
Harbaugh has made it a point over the past few weeks to shout out to Ravens fans how much they are appreciated, and he did so again Saturday night after the crowd that braved the nasty rainstorm mostly remained to the end to cheer the final defensive stand that secured the critical victory.
“I want to say that our fans were pretty amazing,” Harbaugh said. “It was fun, with the fans, at the end of the game. They were a loud group — for the fans that were there. The night, the rain, all that kind of stuff. They were into it [and] they really made a difference for us.”
The Ravens will not play at home again this season barring an all-wild-card AFC title game, so Sunday will be the last chance for fans to pack the stadium and help carry the team past a still-dangerous Bengals team.
If Saturday night’s game was any indication, every little bit helps, and there really is no good reason to stay away unless you truly have decided to never come back. And this doesn’t seem like the season to hold a grudge.
The anthem controversy has largely waned and the Ravens appear to be moving back in the right direction. Joe Flacco has ramped up his game at just the right time and he has long since shown what he is capable of doing if he gets on a postseason roll.
The victory over the Colts wasn’t exactly resounding. It featured some sloppiness in the red zone, some spotty defense and a key special teams breakdown that could’ve been disastrous. It wasn’t pretty, but it kept the Ravens in the hunt during an NFL season where the unexpected has become so commonplace that nothing — good or bad — is out of the question .
In other words, the next few weeks could be quite an adventure that you wouldn’t want to miss.
Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here," at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog.