Ravens clinging to playoff hopes

OWINGS MILLS -- Brian Billick achieved a delicate balancing act while standing behind a podium Monday at the Baltimore Ravens' training complex one day after his football team was mercilessly body-punched by the Pittsburgh Steelers. The coach clung to the slim mathematical scenario that his underachieving outfit could still make the playoffs and postponed addressing questions about the future of embattled offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh

He also acknowledged that the Ravens haven't met expectations one year after winning the AFC North title.

Because the Ravens (8-7) have nosedived with four losses in their last five games, they need the following to happen to still claim the sixth and final AFC playoff berth: a win over the Miami Dolphins on Sunday while praying that the Denver Broncos lose to the Indianapolis Colts, that the Buffalo Bills lose to the Steelers and that the Jacksonville Jaguars either lose or tie the Oakland Raiders, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

"We have not lived up to the promise that this team had, for any number of different reasons," said Billick, whose team began the season 7-3. "But we still have the promise and potential to get into the playoffs, and that is what our focus is going to be. How devastating would it be for us not to play well enough to beat Miami, and those other things do happen? There's the motivation for the week.

"Oddly enough, God bless America, we're going into the final game and we have a playoff shot. We don't have it in our total control, which is a frustrating thing, but everybody's got to play this weekend."

Even if Baltimore somehow qualifies, though, how far might they advance in the postseason? They have defeated only three teams with winning records this season: Pittsburgh, Buffalo and the New York Jets.

The Ravens have scored only eight touchdowns on the road, losing five of their eight games away from M&T Bank Stadium.

Their offense is ranked 31st in the NFL, with the second-worst passing game in the league.

Starters have missed a combined total of 47 games due to injuries.

Running back Jamal Lewis missed two games due to a sprained ankle and another two for violating the NFL substance-abuse policy as a result of his plea bargain in his federal drug conspiracy case.

After a training camp where the Ravens proclaimed themselves prime Super Bowl contenders, it's been a season of glaring disappointment with the obvious mitigating factors of injuries and a treacherous road schedule that included the New England Patriots, Philadelphia Eagles, Indianapolis Colts and Steelers.

Did the Ravens ever envision being in this unenviable position?

"Of course not," Lewis said. "I didn't think it would be like this. I'm tired of taking that hard route as far as having to depend on the last couple of games, whether we're going to the playoffs.

"Hopefully, next year we can get this thing rolling to a great start and keep it going, set the tempo early and not have to fight so hard, make it a little easier on ourselves. We've got a lot of talent. We have a lot of potential."

On Sunday, Baltimore was incapable of running or defending the run against the Steelers in a 20-7 loss, rushing for only 71 yards as Lewis was held to 26 yards on 14 carries, a 1.9 average.

Meanwhile, linebacker Ray Lewis and the defense were hit in the chest by burly Steelers running back Jerome Bettis as Pittsburgh piled up 183 rushing yards.

"The losses at Pittsburgh and Indianapolis show we're coming up short in some ways," safety Ed Reed said. "We have to get better, and I believe we will. We have a lot of heart here."

One common thread to the road losses has been second-half collapses, and an inability to run the football and defend the run.

For the Ravens, those shortcomings shake them at their core. Those presumed strengths are cropping up as major weaknesses at a critical juncture.

"Anytime we don't run the ball as well as we normally do, and get run on the way we did, it's a concern, it shocks us," Billick said. "It's happened a couple of times this season. Their ability to physically push the ball down our throat is a shock. We clearly have to be more physical and tackle better than we did."

After posting a 6-3 mark last season in November and December, the Ravens are 4-4 in those critical months this year. Under Billick since 1999, the Ravens have a 32-17 mark in November and December.

"We clearly have not lived up to our objectives," Billick said. "We did not play well enough to put that control card in our hands. The questions of why we were not able to that, and what we're going to do about it, are legitimate questions and concerns, but they're not for right now. Right now it's about beating the Miami Dolphins."

Baltimore went 5-2 at home, 3-5 in away games. They scored only a total of 17 points in consecutive losses to the Colts and Steelers.

"We haven't measured up on the road," Billick admitted.

Offensively, the Ravens are only averaging 269.5 yards per contest, 144.7 through the air.

Last season, Baltimore ranked 32nd in passing, averaging 140.9 yards per contest while producing the NFL's top-ranked rushing offense as Lewis gained a league-high 2,066 yards and the Ravens set a team record for points with 391.

"I understand, by this time of season, there's a natural inclination -- you want to know, the fans want to know -- where are we? Where are we going? How are we going to adjust?" Billick said. "All of those type of critiques and questions and even criticisms, to a degree, will have their time, and we'll address those things. It's important to recognize -- right now is not that time."

Under Cavanaugh and Billick dating back to 1999, the Ravens have ranked 24th, 16th, 14th, 26th and 21st in total offense. In passing offense, they have ranked 25th, 22nd, 16th, 27th and 32nd.

Cavanaugh has received a steady dose of criticism calling for him to be fired. He interviewed twice for the University of Pittsburgh job that went to former Miami Dolphins coach Dave Wannstedt.

Cavanaugh didn't receive a vote of confidence, but wasn't publicly condemned Monday by Billick, who has the power to hire and fire coaches written into his contract.

When asked if it was fair that Cavanaugh is receiving the brunt of the blame, Billick said: "No, it never is. Everybody loves to be an offensive coordinator: 'You should run when you passed.' That goes part and parcel with the business. Those are things, frankly, that I do have to take into account at some point particularly when you've been here as long as I've been here and there's a cumulative history that goes with it.

"We want it to be better. .. [After the season], we go into a whole second second season of second-guessing and questioning and 'Who should go where and what?' We're not there yet."
 

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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