The Baltimore Ravens are playoff bound, and that's about the best thing that can be said about them.
They've lost three in a row and have more than a half-dozen key players sidelined with injuries. Still, Baltimore (9-5) backed into the postseason late Sunday when Pittsburgh lost to Dallas.
The Steelers' loss assured the Ravens of at least wild-card berth, although their excitement over the accomplishment has been blunted by their longest losing streak since 2009 and the knowledge that they must improve to mount a serious postseason run.
The Ravens entered December with a three-game lead in the AFC North. The margin has shrunk to one game (over Cincinnati) with two to play.
"We've got work to do," coach John Harbaugh said Monday. "We're going to fight like crazy to become the team we're capable of becoming. We're not that team yet. It's a long season, but all of our goals and all of our dreams are squarely in front of us."
That Ravens have the longest current run of consecutive playoff appearances in the NFL. They failed to reach the Super Bowl in any of their previous four forays into the postseason, and that unfortunate string will continue if Baltimore plays as it did the past three weeks.
After losing to Pittsburgh at home and at Washington, the Ravens were dominated from the start Sunday in a 34-17 home loss to Denver. After getting off to a fine 9-2 start, Baltimore is backpedaling in very untimely fashion.
"We've owned the last three losses. We also own the nine wins," Harbaugh said. "We are what we are, we are what our record says we are and we're in contention. We're proud of that. But we know we have to get better and we have to get healthy."
The injury list is expanding rather than shrinking. Linebacker Terrell Suggs (torn right biceps) and cornerback Jimmy Smith (abdomen) returned Sunday, but Ray Lewis remains sidelined with a torn right triceps and Harbaugh said Monday that inside linebacker Jameel McClain will miss the remainder of the season with a bruised spinal cord.
Linebacker Dannell Ellerbe has missed three straight games with a sprained ankle, and Harbaugh acknowledged that the team "might need to see who's available" outside the organization.
The Ravens finished Sunday's game without wide receiver Torrey Smith and running back Bernard Pierce, both of whom had concussions. Their status, along with that of guard Marshal Yanda (ankle), safety Bernard Pollard (chest) and tight end Ed Dickson (knee), remains uncertain heading into Sunday's home game against the New York Giants (8-6).
Injuries are only part of the problem. The Ravens simply haven't played well this month, and although they remain in control of the division their uneven play has created a genuine cause for concern.
"Right now I am embarrassed as a player to come out and perform the way we have," safety Ed Reed said. "...It hits you in your heart when you lose three straight and you had an opportunity to close out your division the last three weeks. It's terrible."
Asked to assess the frustration level of the team, cornerback Corey Graham replied, ""It's at a max. I don't know about everybody else, but I know I'm frustrated. I know we've got to get better, I know we've got to make plays, and we've got to find a way to finish and get it done. We're not doing that as a team, and when you're not doing that you're not going to win games."
Harbaugh attempted to shake things up last week by firing offensive coordinator Cam Cameron and handing the job to quarterbacks coach Jim Caldwell. Unfortunately, the offense was miserable against the Broncos. Baltimore failed to get a first down until deep into the second quarter, quarterback Joe Flacco had two turnovers by halftime and the Ravens scored their only touchdowns after Denver built a 31-3 fourth-quarter lead.
Ray Rice was limited to 38 yards on 12 carries and Pierce gained 20 yards on five tries before leaving. In all, Baltimore could muster only 56 yards on the ground.
"We'd like to run the ball better than we did. I was a little disappointed in that," Harbaugh conceded. "We tried to get that going and there just wasn't much happening there. We need to sustain. We need to be a little more consistent, make a few more plays and get first downs.
"It's really been the same issue all year and we understand that. We're struggling with inconsistency and that's something we have to find between now and when the playoffs start. We're going to work hard to do that. I don't think we're that far away."
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