OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- The Baltimore Ravens understand their struggles have left them with a small margin for error.
Sitting at the bye with a 3-4 record, the defending Super Bowl champions know they'll have to win six or seven of their last nine games to have a realistic shot at the postseason. Right now, the Ravens are two games back of the Cincinnati Bengals (5-2) in the AFC North race and one behind the San Diego Chargers (4-3) for the AFC's last playoff spot.
The Ravens' remaining opponents have a combined 33-28 record (.540). They have as many games against division leaders (New England Patriots, Cincinnati Bengals twice) as teams who are on their second or third quarterback (Cleveland Browns, Chicago Bears and Minnesota Vikings). It appears that the Ravens' playoff fate will come down to how they fare in their final two games: home against the Patriots and at the Bengals.
Harbaugh remains optimistic that the Ravens can regroup to make the playoffs for a sixth straight season. Why?
"We have done pretty well over the last five years anytime we’ve hit a tough stretch, going back to work, dealing with the things we need to correct, overcoming adversity," Harbaugh said Wednesday. "We’re right in the middle of the pack right now. So, we can either go down, stay the same or get better. We intend to get better."
Here's a quick history lesson of the Ravens rebounding under Harbaugh:
In 2008, Harbaugh's first season, the Ravens lost three straight to fall to 2-3. Baltimore then went on to win seven of its next eight games to finish 11-5.
In 2009, the Ravens once again lost three straight early in the season and dropped to 3-3. Baltimore won five of eight games and clinched a playoff spot with a season-ending victory at Oakland.
And last season, the Ravens lost three of their last four games, including an embarrassing 34-17 defeat at home to the Denver Broncos. But Baltimore got hot in the playoffs and won the Super Bowl.
Now, the Ravens have their worst record ever at this point in any season under Harbaugh. After the Ravens' 19-16 loss at Pittsburgh, linebacker Terrell Suggs declared the team was in a "state of emergency."
"I think he's been watching too many movies," wide receiver Torrey Smith said of Suggs' comment. "At the end of the day, we know what’s on the line. When you lose games early, you lose your leverage. Your leverage is your ability to make mistakes. We don’t plan on losing, but it’s better to have more wins than losses. At the end of the season, we’re going to have to count them up, and our room for error is [small] now.”
Smith said you can't blame the Ravens' problems on play calling or the offensive line. It comes down to execution and consistency.
"When you watch film, there’s time where we’re looking dominant up front," Smith said. "There are other times where there are missed assignments where I run the route the way it’s supposed to look and the quarterback misses his throw, or running backs miss the hole. So, it’s all of us. There’s no one person that we can point the blame to. It’s all of us as a group. That’s what we’re really focusing on. At the end of the day, it’s on us as players to go out there and get it done.”
Quarterback Joe Flacco acknowledged there is a sense of urgency but insisted that it's no more heightened than previous years.
"We always look at our schedule, and we understand that we’ve got to win a lot of games," said Flacco, who has been to the playoffs in each of his first five seasons. "It’s no different this year. We’ve been in different situations where we’ve been similar at this point. We’ve just got to continue to take it one game at a time, and it’ll turn out the best that way.”
The Ravens have plenty of problems to address during the bye. They're struggling to run the ball and struggling to stop the run. Baltimore isn't stretching the field in the pass game and isn't getting explosive plays out of its running backs. The Ravens defense also needs to start generating more turnovers. Plus, there have been too many lapses on special teams, from getting punts blocked to giving up long returns.
"What makes me optimistic is I’m always optimistic, because I know how hard we work, I know what good people we have – coaches and players – and I really believe in where we’re going schematically," Harbaugh said. "I think we understand how to solve problems. And that’s what football is -- it’s a problem-solving business. There always are problems -- everybody has them. And I’m very confident in our ability to solve problems, and I know we’ve got the people to do it. So, that’s probably where it starts.”