When the Ravens' schedule came out, a lot of people inside and outside the organization circled the Christmas Day showdown with the Pittsburgh Steelers as likely to decide the season.
But I'm guessing few would have believed the Ravens could still be in playoff contention on Christmas after experiencing the following:
- A four-game losing streak culminating with a loss to the lowly New York Jets.
- A 20-point deficit in Cleveland ... in the first quarter.
- An alarming meltdown in the final minutes of a mid-December game against the Philadelphia Eagles that they had to win.
- A rushing attack ranked in the bottom five of the league in yards per game.
- Not one, not two, but three injuries to Jimmy Smith, their top cornerback and most indispensable player other than quarterback Joe Flacco.
- A starting quarterback ranked No. 5 in the league in passing yards, but No. 25 in quarterback rating.
That's a lot to deal with, but in what might be their version of a semi-Christmas miracle, the Ravens have endured it all and reached the Christmas Day showdown with an 8-6 record and everything to play for.
Yes, they barely made it, needing a stop on a two-point try in the final seconds Sunday to avoid a loss to Philadelphia that pretty much would have doomed their chances. But they did make the stop, and now they can take over first place in the AFC North if they beat the Steelers Sunday. If that happens, they would still need to beat the Bengals in Cincinnati in their season finale to clinch the division title and a trip to the playoffs.
The Steelers also have everything to play for – they're a game ahead of Baltimore in the standings and can clinch the division title by winning Sunday. They're on a roll, having won five straight games, and they're playing at home, so they'll be solidly favored. The line is 5½ points right now.
But the fact that the Ravens are still in the mix is a long-odds proposition in itself, so disregard them at your peril. They tend to find a way to do just enough to keep hanging around, which doesn't sound like a compliment but does reflect important qualities such as persistence and resourcefulness, which can't be tabulated but do come in handy.
At several points in 2016, their playoff chances seemed on the verge of extinction. It was hard not to infer that the end was near after they lost to the Jets on Oct. 22. They were one play away from a defeat that would have devastated them Sunday.
But they dodged those obstacles, and here they are, still in control of their fate.
How did they do it? Avoiding (for the most part) the injury bug that derailed them in 2015 certainly helped. They've also raised their level of play since that loss to the Jets, winning five of their last seven games, with the only losses coming against the current No. 1 seeds in the NFC and AFC, the Dallas Cowboys and New England Patriots. That's actually a pretty decent run.
No, their winning formula hasn't been a thing of beauty. Their defense has bent at times, but kept them in most games. Their offense has lacked balance and consistency, but still tapped out some points. Their excellent kicker, Justin Tucker, has made the difference in several games.
With a 6-1 record against teams currently at .500 or below, the Ravens have mostly taken advantage of their opportunities, sometimes by the narrowest of margins – a 53-yard game-winning field goal from Tucker with 62 seconds to play in Jacksonville; a pass deflection by C.J. Mosley on an all-or-nothing two-point conversion Sunday. Talk about sweating it out.
Yes, they needed help to get to this point. The Bengals, their nemesis lately, are having a down season after winning the division title in 2015. The Steelers started slowly, losing five of their first nine games before coming on. That helped a Baltimore team with six losses find itself still very much in play on Christmas.
It's been an unlikely road, bumpy at times, but the Ravens have endured it, and as Santa revs up his sleigh, they have everything to play for. One big performance, against a team they've dominated lately, could change everything. That's all any team in their situation could or should ask for.