Ravens hoping to finish season on winning note

OWINGS MILLS -- Discord in the locker room and job security have dominated conversation regarding the Baltimore Ravens all week.<br><br> That's what typically happens when a team that proclaimed itself a prime Super Bowl contender is on the brink of elimination from playoff contention. And the bad situation was magnified when reports surfaced that offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh will be fired after the season, and cornerback Chris McAlister alleged that the locker room is divided.

The Ravens (8-7) need a win over the Miami Dolphins (4-11) today at M&T Bank Stadium to have any hope of earning the sixth and final AFC playoff spot. And they'll need the Buffalo Bills, Denver Broncos and Jacksonville Jaguars to cooperate by losing.
Not everyone is resigned to spectator status in the postseason.

Maybe it's just simple denial, or optimism, even though the team has lost control of its fate.

"I don't think that our season is coming to an end," linebacker Terrell Suggs said. "It just doesn't feel good when it's not in our hands."

A victory might quell some concerns about an outfit that has lost four of its last five games in an injury-plagued season, and might be altered significantly as a result of not being able to topple elite teams.

Baltimore is 3-4 against teams with winning records and has been outscored by a combined 64-20 in losses to the defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots, the AFC North division champion Pittsburgh Steelers and the AFC South champion Indianapolis Colts.

"That's life," Ravens coach Brian Billick said of possibly not being part of the playoff landscape after all but reserving hotel rooms in Jacksonville, Fla., site of the Super Bowl, during training camp. "Those expectations were well-founded and we certainly can't back off of those now. That's what we thought of ourselves, and I thought, rightfully so.

"A lot of things have happened since then. Right now, we still have that potential. To talk about unfulfilled seasons, whether it's good or bad, underachieving, overachieving, is all premature right now. To talk about anything beyond that is counterproductive and doesn't make sense."

The Ravens are favored by 11 points against a Miami team that has gone 3-3 under interim coach Jim Bates and is days away from LSU coach Nick Saban taking over.

Following a horrific late-season collapse after a 7-3 start, McAlister sounds unlikely to change his opinion about the intangible issue of team chemistry even if the Ravens' season doesn't end today.

"Even if we were going to the playoffs, it's not a healthy situation," said McAlister, whose comments regarding the locker room weren't echoed by teammates.

After a loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, linebacker Ray Lewis, the team's leader who didn't talk with reporters this week, said the Ravens needed to perform a "gut-check," and intimated that teammates' desire is an issue. Safety Ed Reed admitted after losing to Pittsburgh that "something's wrong" with this team, and running back Jamal Lewis questioned the play-calling for the second time this season.

McAlister described the playoff chances as "bleak" and compared the odds to playing the Lotto.

Expecting even a junior varsity version of the Steelers and Colts to fold against the Bills and Broncos is possible considering they have their playoff fate determined and will rest key players. However, counting on the Jaguars losing to the Oakland Raiders (5-10, 3-8 against the AFC), is hard to bank on.

"We just need to win a game for our morale," veteran defensive back Corey Fuller said. "Even if we don't get into the playoffs, we need to build onto what is going to go on around here for next year. Nobody should be happy about being 8-7."

The Ravens need to at least get back to running the football and stopping the run, two benchmarks they haven't been able to count on at critical junctures.

The Ravens allowed 183 rushing yards last week, and generated only 71 on the ground last week as Jamal Lewis was held to 26 yards on 14 carries.

"It all boils down to taking care of business," quarterback Kyle Boller said.

The other business aspect for the Ravens will come into play soon.

Several unrestricted free agents at the end of the season are wondering if they're going to be tendered contract offers. That group includes cornerback Gary Baxter, linebacker Ed Hartwell, receiver Travis Taylor, center Casey Rabach, offensive guard Bennie Anderson and defensive end Marques Douglas.

"At the end of the season, I'll put my business hat on," Douglas said. "Yes, I do want to prove that I'm worthy of a new contract and being a part of this football team. I hope they know I'm going to play hard."

How players perform under the duress of this strife-filled week is likely be factored into off-season evaluations.

Who will be invited back or asked to clean out their locker may very well hinge on the perhaps final impression left in today's contest.

"As young men who love this game, we're not happy," Fuller said. "We should be better, laden with the talent we have. People will remember what you do on Sunday if it's the last time we play football."

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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