Ravens' playoff outlook is tight

OWINGS MILLS -- Studying the NFL standings informs Baltimore Ravens coach Brian Billick that defending the AFC North title is virtually an unattainable goal, and scrapping into the playoffs with a wild-card berth is the likely reality.

Based on how Baltimore was manhandled 24-3 by the New England Patriots on Sunday for its most lopsided loss in three years, there's an unanswered big-picture question: Can the Ravens (7-4) actually compete with the elite teams in the postseason should they claim one of the two AFC wild-card berths?

The team's worst loss since a 25-0 defeat to Tampa Bay on Sept. 25, 2002, including a franchise-low 124 yards of total offense and a paltry 1.2 yards per passing attempt, is an extremely gloomy indicator.

"We've just got to win out," cornerback Gary Baxter said. "We can't dwell too much on this game. Our hopes are still up high. Now, a lot of teams in the AFC are playing good ball. "So, the margin of error for us right now is very slim."

The Ravens trail the Pittsburgh Steelers (10-1) by three games in the division with five remaining games, yet their wild-card outlook isn't nearly as grim. Should the Ravens win their final three home games against the Cincinnati Bengals (5-6), New York Giants (5-6) and Miami Dolphins (2-9) and secure one road win over the Indianapolis Colts (8-3) or Pittsburgh they're practically guaranteed entry into the playoffs. "Mathematically, you'd have to think so," Billick said regarding the likelihood of a wild-card rather than a division title. "I don't know if Pittsburgh's going to fold up shop just quite yet. You never know, but given the distance and where they're at, who they're playing. We'll win them one at a time and when we make it someone will come tell us."

Baltimore is tied with the Denver Broncos (7-4) for the final wild-card spot, ranking one game behind the New York Jets (7-4). However, the Ravens own a tiebreaker edge over the Jets by virtue of a 20-17 overtime win Nov. 14.

A tie with Denver would be decided by who has the superior conference record, and the Broncos are 4-3 and the Ravens are 5-3.

"We are still in excellent position," Billick said. "We are kind of in control of our fate to a certain degree. Short of a division championship, you don't know what your playoff profile is going to be, but we have plenty of opportunities to affect it in a positive way and realistically expect to get there.

"It begins with taking care of business at home, and then we have to find one on the road. The next two games are huge and our guys are aware of that. I think they felt badly about not playing better last time."

Baltimore has been to the playoffs in four of its last five years, but didn't look playoff-caliber in its sloppy mud-bath at Gillette Stadium.

Without running back Jamal Lewis (ankle), tight end Todd Heap (ankle) and offensive tackle Orlando Brown (knee), the Ravens registered 47 net passing yards. They averaged 2.1 yards per offensive play on 59 snaps and converted only 21 percent of their third downs (3-for-14).

In nine years of existence, the Ravens haven't had a more meager offensive showing.

"This will give us the opportunity to regroup and see where we need to be," quarterback Kyle Boller said after being limited to 93 passing yards on 15 of 35 attempts for a 34.6 rating.

Boller was sacked four times and broke a string of 123 attempts in a row without an interception. "Like everybody's, not good enough," Billick said of Boller's worst outing since a three-interception game against the Washington Redskins.

Defensively, Baltimore allowed 314 yards of total offense. New England controlled the football for 35:54. And Corey Dillon rushed for 123 yards and a touchdown on 30 carries, gaining one less yard than the entire Baltimore offense.

Dillon stiff-armed several defenders rudely to the ground, including cornerback Corey Fuller in the face. Safety Ed Reed resembled a matador on another missed tackle.Afterward, linebacker Ray Lewis required stitches to mend a cut across the bridge of his nose.

"You can't go and drop your head because we lost a game," Lewis said. "We're 7-4, the playoff race is right where we need to be and everything will take care of itself."

Or is that merely wishful thinking?

Based on the Ravens' inability to pass, protect the quarterback, run or stop the run against the defending Super Bowl champions, something will need to change to avoid a repeat occurrence. "When you talk about New England, Indianapolis and Pittsburgh, we could go back to those places," Billick said. "We'd love to go back there, because that means certain things have happened, but we're going to have to play better than we did [Sunday] to make a run at that."

Aaron Wilson writes for the Carroll County Times.

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