After meltdown, Ravens still in playoff mix

OWINGS MILLS -- Although the stench of a defensive debacle still lingers, the Baltimore Ravens remain in the thick of the playoff hunt.

The Ravens' playoff picture was complicated by a 27-26 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals as the defense allowed 24 points in the fourth quarter and 453 yards of total offense, but their postseason outlook wasn't ruined.

Control of their own fate isn't entirely out of their grasp despite a splintering defense. Baltimore (7-5) is tied with the Denver Broncos (7-5) for the sixth and final AFC playoff spot and presently holds a tie-breaker edge because of a superior 5-4 conference mark to the Broncos' 4-4. The Ravens are two games behind the New York Jets (9-3) for the fifth spot, four games behind the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC North.

"If we keep losing, heck, we ain't going," outside linebacker Adalius Thomas said. "We've got to win out. It's not some kind of rocket science. We've got to win to go to the playoffs."

If the Ravens win their remaining four games, an unlikely scenario because of challenging road contests against the Indianapolis Colts (9-3) and Steelers (11-1), they would probably claim a playoff spot with 11 wins. However, a 10-6 or 9-7 mark would leave an opening for several teams to take the sixth spot, including the Broncos or a trio of 6-6 clubs: the Jacksonville Jaguars, Bengals and Buffalo Bills.

"I don't know quite frankly and neither do you what it's going to take to get into the playoffs," said Ravens coach Brian Billick after calling a rare Monday team meeting. "Is it 11-5? Is it 10-6? Is it 9-7?

"Are we in that mix? Absolutely. Are a whole bunch of other teams? Absolutely."

Multiple tie-breakers separate who claims the two wild-card spots.

If the Ravens have the same record as Denver at season's end since there are no head-to-head encounters, the next tiebreaker is win-lost percentage in the conference.

If that winds up the same, it's determined by best win-lost percentage in common games with a minimum of four.

The Ravens and Broncos have four common opponents: Kansas City, Cincinnati, Miami and Indianapolis.

The Ravens are 1-2 against those teams with remaining games against Miami and Indianapolis, and Denver is 1-1 against those teams and has games left against Miami, Kansas City and Indianapolis. If both teams win the rest of their games, the Ravens would be edged out by Denver because of the common-opponent tiebreaker.

The fourth and fifth tiebreakers are strength of victory and strength of schedule. The Ravens are in good shape in strength of victory because of wins over the Jets and Steelers.

"I am confident, having met with them collectively, that they understand what's in front of them and the potential to get done what we originally set out to do," Billick said. "I think this team is strong enough to go forward. This team will be resilient. We've put it now officially behind us."

The situation might become academic, however, if Baltimore continues to falter defensively.

Against the New England Patriots, the Ravens couldn't tackle Corey Dillon. Against the Bengals, they couldn't cover.

They allowed Bengals first-year Carson Palmer to pass for a career-high 382 yards on 80.6 percent accuracy.

"If you're supposed to be somewhere, you be there," Thomas said. "If you're supposed to cover somebody, cover them. It's just being a professional and being where you're supposed to be and doing what you're supposed to do."

The secondary, especially cornerbacks Chris McAlister and Gary Baxter, didn't do what they were supposed to do well enough, though. They allowed receivers Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh to combine for 20 receptions, 332 yards and three scores.

"It wasn't like we were physically being beaten," McAlister said in a television interview Monday. "We were making mental mistakes, which are correctable."

Often, communication appeared to be a major issue. Or was it excessive free-lancing, or an inability to counter the receivers' speed, agility and routes?

Billick wasn't in a mood for a detailed discussion of the defense, which dropped from fourth in the NFL to eighth.

"We have to play better," Billick said. "Again, I apologize, it serves no purpose to try to isolate this reason or that reason. It's the whole package.You have to communicate better. Alignment, assignment and technique."

Linebacker Ray Lewis, the team's high-profile leader, expressed frustration Sunday with teammates' intensity but didn't name names. "I think it's a gut check for anybody who didn't put his heart in this game, period," Lewis said. "If you walk on a football field, there's two things you're going to do. Either you're going to watch it or you're going to play it. When you're talking about a team concept, team only exists by simply every man doing his job. "So when they understand that, that's their gut check. It's hard for me to keep speaking for everybody."

Billick declined to address Lewis' remarks, saying he wasn't aware of them.

"I'm sure there was frustration, but in the way that you're intimating, I don't think it was meant that way," Billick said.

Will the Ravens stick together for the stretch run? Or will finger-pointing commence?

"It's very crucial to remain a team because everybody's emotions are real high right now," Thomas said. "You're disappointed from the loss. At the same time, you have to remain a professional and say the season is not over."

Aaron Wilson is the chief writer for RavensInsider.Com He is also the Ravens' reporter for the Carroll County Times in Westminster Maryland.

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