The bye week in the NFL is supposedly a time for a team to relax and take stock, but for the Ravens, taking stock after six games isn't very relaxing.
The three straight defeats they experienced before yesterday's bye were all avoidable last-minute jobs; change just a few plays and they could be undefeated instead of 3-3. But losses they all were, and they've left the Ravens in a position that probably isn't helping them sleep soundly.
Not that they've played their way out of the postseason picture. Even though the Steelers and Bengals both won yesterday to improve to 5-2 and remain tied atop the AFC North, the Ravens, with 10 games left, have more than enough time and opportunities to make up ground in the divisional and wild card races.
But make no mistake, those three losses took a giant whack out of their margin of error. It is thinner than a runway model now.
Quite simply, they can't afford many more slipups, if any -- an unsettling reality considering that their schedule is above-average tough, with half of their remaining games against teams that are in first place in their divisions today.
They'll need to tighten up their pass defense and exhibit more consistency on both sides of the ball if they want to make any noise. They'll also have to deal with some seemingly tough breaks from the Great Schedule Gods, those uncontrollable higher forces that make your schedule either easier or harder than expected, depending on how a season unfolds.
Some years the Gods go easy on you, and other years they crush you. The Ravens aren't getting the easy end of it this year.
For instance, their home game against the Broncos next Sunday looked like a sure winner when the season began; the Broncos seemed to be starting over with a new coach and a new quarterback after collapsing toward the end of last season. Instead, Denver is coming to town with a 6-0 record and viable Super Bowl dreams.
It's a crucial game for the Ravens, who can't afford to take a 3-4 record into a road rematch with the Bengals the following week. But now they have to go through an unbeaten, increasingly confident team to get the win. Tough stuff.
Another tough scheduling break: unlike a year ago, the Ravens didn't get an early-season shot at the Steelers, who stumbled out of the gate and had to endure an injury to Troy Polamalu that seemed to leave them more vulnerable than usual during September. Now Polamalu is back and the Steelers are finding themselves, if their 27-17 victory over Brett Favre and the previously unbeaten Vikings yesterday is any measure. And the Ravens still have to play them twice.
No, the Steelers were hardly dominant yesterday. In fact, some people might say they were lucky, needing two long defensive touchdowns in the fourth quarter to hold on, the last one coming after Favre had driven the Vikings' offense into position to score a game-winning touchdown in the final minute. But the Steelers' opportunism was anything but lucky. It was just the kind of big-play football the Steelers always seem to make -- the kind that has eluded the Ravens in recent weeks.
Oh, sure, there are also some soft spots on the Ravens' schedule – road games at the Browns and Raiders should be wins, and a home game against the Lions is about as easy as it gets. The up and down Bears, who took a beating at Cincinnati yesterday, look like the kind of soft team the Ravens usually maul at home.
But the easy marks on their schedule are outnumbered by the tough spots. To get back to the playoffs, the Ravens are going to have forge a winning record against winning teams. They're going to have to beat some people who aren't losing many games this season. And that, in the end, is the sobering effect of their three-game losing streak..
John Eisenberg 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.