Eisenberg: Ravens Are Close, Yet Far, From Reaching Their Goals


When the Ravens get around to examining and assessing their 2017 season, they'll see that conflicting forces were in play.

They were hamstrung by bad fortune that made their job harder, but also buffeted by good fortune that helped them contend for a playoff spot.

Bad fortune took the form of a debilitating rash of injuries and other subtractions, some downright freakish, the majority occurring during the offseason, training camp and preseason. The offensive line was effectively blown apart, and other positions also took hits. That certainly contributed to the Ravens' middling start, which almost derailed their playoff prospects by early November.

But that tough luck was offset by good fortune in the form of a forgiving schedule, which included 11 games against non-playoff qualifiers (the Ravens went 0-5 against qualifiers) as well as a run of opportunities to face backup quarterbacks. Those circumstances helped give the Ravens a chance to gather themselves and make a late-season surge.

In the end, they were in great position to qualify for the playoffs. They only needed to make one stop on a fourth-and-12 play late in their regular-season finale Sunday.

Since they didn't make that stop, what should they see when they assess the season?

Again, I see conflicting themes.

When you come that close to making the playoffs, you're in the right ballpark big-picture. Although the Ravens were maddeningly inconsistent on both sides of the ball, they also had it in them to compete quite well in January. Yes, I do believe that.

But at the same time, if I'm the Ravens, I'd be careful with relying too much on the notion that they were "just one play away" from where they wanted to be. The AFC North standings tell a different tale. The Ravens finished four games behind the Steelers.

That's not close. That's a football approximation of Secretariat's legendary landslide triumph in horse racing's Belmont Stakes.

A complete runaway, in other words.

The Ravens' first priority every season is to win their division. Naturally. Winning your division is the ticket to home playoff games and first-round byes, the breaks that make a January run more possible.

But plain and simple, the Ravens lost touch with the top of the AFC North in 2017.

I think that, as much as any factor, should inform their assessment of the season.

There's one big difference between this year's frustrating playoff near-miss and last year's. When they fell just short in Pittsburgh a year ago, they were trying to zero in on a division title that day. This year, they had long ago given up on winning the division because they had been swept by the Steelers and were hopelessly behind in the standings. They needed a wild-card ticket to the playoffs.

Yes, you can still make a run and even win the Super Bowl as a wild-card qualifier; the Ravens themselves did in 2000, before the NFL went with its current eight-division alignment.

But the odds are longer because you end up on the road week after week. Since the current alignment and playoff format was installed in 2002, wild cards have won three times.

Meanwhile, the Ravens haven't won the AFC North since 2012, their most recent Super Bowl season. That's a five-year drought. In those five years, the Steelers have won the division three times and the Bengals have won it twice. Only the Ravens and (gargling noise) the Cleveland Browns haven't finished on top.

A year ago, the Ravens finished three games behind the Steelers. This year, it was four games. That's a lot of ground to make up and, in my mind, a pretty convincing argument against believing you're right where you want to be.

Yes, it's a positive that they've been good enough to come oh-so-close to the playoffs for two straight years. But I'm reminded of that famous line of text embossed on the side mirror of my car: "objects in the mirror are closer as they appear."

The opposite is true with the Ravens and their first goal in any season, winning the AFC North. That object actually is farther away than it appears.

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