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But those goals aren't entirely lost with a month of regular-season games left; they're just out of the Ravens' control now.
And meanwhile, surprising home losses by the Colts and Chargers on Sunday left the Ravens with a vice-grip on that wild card ticket. One of the AFC's quartet of .500 teams (Colts, Chargers, Dolphins, Raiders) would have to gain two games on the 8-4 Ravens in four weeks just to forge a tie.
Barring a collapse by the Ravens in the wake of the loss to Pittsburgh, they came away from Sunday pretty much knowing they're going to the playoffs for a third straight season.
Not a bad consolation prize.
Quick, someone tell those fans jumping off bridges after Sunday that they're going to miss the playoffs. (They might already have missed the Jets' 42-point loss to the Patriots last night; in four quarters, Rex Ryan's team rang up a point deficit more than double the total margin of the Ravens' four losses this season.)
But of course, how the Ravens fare once they're in those playoffs is what matters. A first-round loss would satisfy no one, safe to say. The public is expecting more this season, and for that matter, so are the Ravens. They clearly have the potential to make a long January run, and that sets the bar high, for better or worse.
To state unilaterally that they're careening toward an early exit based on the Pittsburgh loss is, I believe, a bit dramatic. Again, don't spread this around, but they played pretty well Sunday night. The postmortems have inevitably focused on what they didn't do, but here's what they did do – compete ferociously, with a searing, snarling edge that likely would have knocked out all but the league's best teams.
The Ravens always bring that to the table. They're intensely physical. The Steelers were almost as battered and bruised as they were happy leaving town Sunday night.
But the object is to win, not throw the hardest punch. And the Ravens have some work to do to become a team that can roll into late January, possibly road-tripping the whole way.
Their shortcomings are obvious. The rushing game (30th in the league in yards-per-carry) isn't good enough. Neither is the pass protection. The offense is shaky on third down, shaky in the red zone, prone to long periods where nothing happens. They have too many Pro Bowl playmakers to score just 10 points in any game.
It's a laundry list of items, none any secret. A frustratedDerrick Mason vented about them Sunday night, and Ravens Head Coach John Harbaugh acknowledged them point-by-point in his day-after press conference, although he pointedly backed Offensive Coordinator Cam Cameron's play-calling, which some fans insist is the whole problem.
I'm not going there. Play-calling is like a fun house mirror; the reality is never as it appears. You can make an aggressive call but end up looking conservative because of how your players adjust to on-field developments. And you certainly can't clear up any problems simply by shouting, "OK, floor it!"
And in any case, my quibble goes the other way. If I could fix one thing about the offense – funny, the Ravens haven't asked for my input -- it would be the commitment to running the ball, or more specifically, to Ray Rice running the ball. He's the Ravens' most dangerous offensive player, yet he ranks just 13th in the league in carries.
A steady diet of running plays can control the clock and quiet rival home crowds -- factors the Ravens may need in their favor come January – and more touches by Rice would give the Ravens back the ballast and balance that seem to be missing. My prediction: the more they try it, the better they'd fare. That's how a decent running game works.
The Ravens ran 57 plays Sunday night, and Rice touched the ball just 11 times. If I'm rolling up my sleeves to try to get the offense in shape for January, I start there.
John Eisenberg *covers the Ravens for Comcast SportsNet Baltimore. He worked in the newspaper business for 28 years as a sports columnist, with much of that time coming at the Baltimore Sun. While working for the Sun, Eisenberg spent time covering the Ravens, among other teams and events, including the Super Bowl, Final Four, World Series and Olympics. Eisenberg is also the author of seven sports-themed books.*