The Ravens haven't actually been on the road since Labor Day. It just seems that way.
The 2013 NFL season has been underway for 11 weeks, and the Ravens have played four games at M&T Bank Stadium. No other team has played less on its home turf.
Strangely, with Thanksgiving looming and the season about to enter its home stretch, the Ravens still have half of their home schedule to go. They're going to play three straight in Baltimore starting with Sunday's game against the New York Jets.
None of this has caught anyone by surprise. When the schedule came out last spring, everyone could see that it was frontloaded with road games and that the Ravens would be at home a lot in late November and December, when playoff bids generally are determined. It sounded like a favorable schedule, although Ravens Head Coach John Harbaugh shrugged off the notion that it mattered in any way, stating what he always does about schedules, that all teams plays eight at home and eight on the road in the end.
But the heavy concentration of road games has been rougher on the Ravens than anyone expected. They fell to 1-5 away from home in 2013 when Robbie Gould's game-winning field goal spun just inside the right upright Sunday evening, giving the Chicago Bears an overtime win.
On their many travels since Labor Day, the Ravens have experienced a pair of weather delays including Sunday's tornado watch, a shellacking in Denver, Joe Flacco's five-pick-a-thon in Buffalo and three defeats by a field goal or less going into Chicago. Then, Sunday's overtime frustration. To borrow from the Grateful Dead, what a long, strange trip it's been.
It's actually just a continuation of the home/road disparity that has been in play for several years. The Ravens have won 27 of their last 31 games at home, but they're under .500 on the road over the same period.
That's typical, as just about every NFL team fares better at home, but the Ravens' case is more extreme than many. The organization has sought to identify the problem and fix it, but no easy answer exists. Considering that the Ravens won at Denver and New England on their way to Super Bowl glory last season, it could be there's no real culprit, just happenstance at work.
In any case, the end result of the Ravens' road woes is they're barely hanging on in the AFC playoff race, still viable only because so many other teams have similarly struggled and one wild card berth is as available as a playoff ticket gets. It could easily go to a team with an 8-8 record, although my bet is 9-7 will punch the ticket in the end.
The Ravens are coming home in time to save their season, but just barely. Doing the math, there's no doubting what they need to do. To have a reasonable shot at making the postseason for a sixth straight year, they need to sweep these three straight home games starting Sunday.
Beat the Jets? Check. Beat the Pittsburgh Steelers on Thanksgiving night? Check. Beat the Minnesota Vikings on Dec. 8? Check. They'll still need to do more after that to make the playoffs, but first things first.
It's certainly possible. None of those three upcoming opponents has a winning record. But of course, neither do the Ravens. And let's face it, nothing comes easily for them this season. All but a couple of their games have been agonizing trudges across heavy emotional ground – down-to-the-wire, gut-grabbing, opera-like dramas, determined in the final minutes or seconds.
There's no reason to expect that to change. The Ravens are ranked 25th in the league in points per game, so they seldom blow opponents out. But they always play with a lot of fight and heart, so they're a tough out. That's a recipe for playing close games. So get ready. Now 2.5 games behind the first-place Cincinnati Bengals in the AFC North, the Ravens are longshots in the divisional race. But their prospects are still decent for that wild-card spot provided they get better at finishing, sealing deals, finding a way to win close games – a knack they have lacked on the road this season but now need to wield at home.