Ravens mired in pack of playoff hopefuls

OWINGS MILLS -- The Baltimore Ravens' once promising playoff outlook could hemorrhage in a gridlocked corridor of contenders.<br><br>Under most viable scenarios, the Ravens absolutely need to defeat the formidable Pittsburgh Steelers on the road this weekend to rescusitate their postseason bid.<br><br>Three losses in its last four games -- the latest a 20-10 stumble against the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday night -- has reduced the margin for error to virtually nil.

Instead of leapfrogging the field with a victory against Indianapolis, Baltimore (8-6) is now in the precarious spot of vying for the sixth and final playoff spot in the AFC against the Jacksonville Jaguars (8-6), Denver Broncos (8-6) and Buffalo Bills (8-6) with two weeks remaining in the regular season.

As it currently stands, Jacksonville has the edge over the field for the sixth spot because of their superior strength of schedule than Baltimore (.571 to the Ravens' .544). Jack Del Rio's Jaguars have also defeated Buffalo and Denver.

Yet, if Baltimore -- the only team to defeat the Steelers (13-1) -- can duplicate that feat against undefeated rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, they could experience a dramatic shift of fortune.

An upset win would boost their strength of victory tiebreaker to a point where it might be difficult to topple as Baltimore pursues its fourth playoff berth in the last five seasons.

"We're not done," tight end Todd Heap said. "We're going to fight until the end and see what happens. That's all we can do at this point. A lot can still happen for us."

Despite winning its last five games, the Bills' chief disadvantage is a 5-6 conference mark, the second tiebreaker, in comparison to the other three playoff hopefuls' 5-5 mark in the AFC. The Ravens own a head-to-head tiebreaker over the Bills.

Reeling from a lopsided loss to the Kansas City Chiefs, the Broncos have a lower strength of victory (.423) than Jacksonville and Baltimore (.491).

None of these teams is in control of its own fate, though. Multiple scenarios exist where they could win the remainder of their schedules, finish 10-6 and still not qualify for the playoffs.

"We've played some good teams, done some good things, we've done some things that have gotten us beat," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "The objective is to get to 10-6. Does 10-6 get you in? We'll find out.

"There's an incredible amount of football that has to be played before it's determined what the playoff picture is going to be. It's just what the league has wanted, and they've got it, and it's great for the game because there's a lot of excitement."

Baltimore could miss the playoffs if the Broncos and Ravens are the only 10-6 outfits out of the pack because of the common-opponent tiebreaker, a negative factor aggravated by the loss to the Colts. It would also occur if both the Ravens and Jaguars went 10-6 because of Jacksonville's strength of victory tiebreaker.

Baltimore would be aided by the unlikely prospect of the Cleveland Browns (3-11) defeating the Houston Texans (6-8), because the Ravens have defeated Cleveland once and the Texans lost to Jacksonville.

"We've got multiple teams involved, each with a task of playing on the road, at home against good opponents," Billick said. "Who better for us than Pittsburgh because of what that represents. I know our guys will be excited about that. That's the challenge for us."

Is the Ravens' late-season slide a mere skid or a collapse? Is the team's morale still where it was after the toil of having starters miss a combined 46 games due to injuries?

"We've had some things that have gotten us beat, it doesn't really go beyond that," Billick said. "Their mindset is confident. You saw it [Sunday], the way they responded. I saw no sign of any psychological, 'Ooh, is this going to happen?' or 'Geez, is this not going to be our year?' or whatever.

"I'm not concerned on a bigger scale, not with this team." It's far more clear-cut that the Ravens won't have to worry about postseason plans if they repeat the miscues they committed against the Colts.

Quarterback Kyle Boller delivered two costly interceptions. Offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden couldn't corral speedy defensive end Dwight Freeney. Offensive guard Bennie Anderson was bull-rushed so badly by defensive tackle Larry Triplette that it caused Matt Stover to have a rare field goal attempt blocked.

And cornerback Chris McAlister was spun around like a top by Marvin Harrison on a touchdown pass, the only one delivered by Dan Marino record-chasing quarterback Peyton Manning.

"We have to recognize, and they know it, that you can't turn the ball over, make some of the mistakes that we made and progress through the playoffs, particularly on the road," Billick said. "Ours will be a road trek if we can make the playoffs, so a lot of lessons learned the other night."

The Ravens held the Colts to their lowest point total of the season and outgained them 354 to 316 in total offense. "I thought our defense was magnificent in its ability to match up with an elite player in the league in Peyton Manning," Billick said. "They stepped up to that challenge. They weren't perfect, obviously, but they did a phenomenal job.

"That was our style of game. We said we had to make that our style of game, a physical game, and we did, but the turnovers mitigated that."

Although the Ravens are likely assured of closing their regular-season finale out with a win over the Miami Dolphins (2-11), unseating Pittsburgh is an entirely different matter.

Since cornerback Gary Baxter injured Pittsburgh quarterback Tommy Maddox in the Ravens' Week 2 win, Roethlisberger has won 12 consecutive starts.

The Steelers haven't lost at home since November of 2003. They have won 10 of their last 11 games at Heinz Field. And that streak includes decisive wins over NFL power brokers such as the defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots (12-1), Philadelphia Eagles (13-1) and New York Jets (10-4).

"It's exhilarating and exciting," Billick said, referring to an extended winning run. "The teaching atmosphere is incredible, because the players just absorb it. But there is an cumulative wear and tear, waiting for that other shoe to drop. Can you maintain?"

Evidently, the Steelers can. Nothing has bothered Roethlisberger yet, and hamburgers are being named after him in the hungry Steel City.

Yet, the Ravens managed to contain Manning and were capable of defeating Pittsburgh 30-13 on Sept. 19 at home as the defense forced three turnovers and held the Steelers scoreless for the first three quarters. The Steelers are wrangling for playoff seeding.

"It's a rivalry," Billick said. "They have a great deal at stake, as do we. They've beaten the elite at home. They've been darn good and that's a tough place to win. It's a great challenge for us, another playoff atmosphere."

As well as a being a long time contributor to RavensInsider, Aaron Wilson writes for the Carroll County Times in Westminster Maryland.

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