Eisenberg: Ravens Trying To Survive Schedule Monster

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From the moment the 2015 NFL schedule was announced in April, the Ravens knew their early-season run of games was a monster. The goal would be to survive it.

But I'm guessing they thought their monster was, well, maybe a seahorse-like creature; not the biggest or scariest of monsters, but the kind you could smack with a paddle and keep from doing you in.

Alas, it turns out the monster is a huge, hairy, fire-breathing, team-eating colossus. The Ravens are just trying to keep it from killing them.

Have you seen the current TV commercial in which a dinosaur-like creature rises out of a pond, grabs a golfer and tosses him around like a doll? That's how I envision the Ravens' schedule monster.

It was scary enough as a theory with its run of five road games in seven weeks to open the season.  But the real thing is proving even scarier.

So far, the Ravens have played the undefeated Cincinnati Bengals, undefeated Denver Broncos and surprising Oakland Raiders, opponents that are a combined 8-1, with the only defeat coming when Cincinnati topped Oakland. There's no easy mark in that group, no home game against a lowly Jacksonville or Chicago, enabling you to gain some footing. Laugh at the Raiders all you want, but they're improved under Jack Del Rio. The Bengals and Broncos are playoff-bound, as usual.

It's no excuse for losing, of course. Let's be clear on that. As Bill Parcells said, you are what your record is. The Ravens are winless because their defense can't protect late leads and their offense is experiencing periodic blackouts, not because of their schedule. If they were good enough, they would have one or two wins by now.

As it is, they've lost in consecutive weeks by six, four and four points.

They aren't getting blown out like the also-winless Bears, who have been outscored by 59 points in their three games, or the San Francisco 49ers, who have lost their last two by a combined 65 points. So if anything, the Ravens are pretty good for an 0-3 team. No one is doing cartwheels over that, but Head Coach John Harbaugh certainly didn't sound defeated Monday.

"We're a very confident football team, and we feel like we can overcome any adversity. We have before; we will again," he said.

Nonetheless, they're winless heading into Thursday night's game against the Steelers in Pittsburgh. That's always the toughest of games, especially with Team Terrible Towel itching to avenge January's playoff loss and also bury the Ravens at 0-4 – a double hit of motivation.

The Ravens have a better chance now that Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is out with a sprained knee; Baltimore is 5-1 against Pittsburgh when Ben sits. But don't be fooled. Michael Vick is a capable replacement and the Ravens will have a tough time, especially with their secondary and running game experiencing such struggles.

Their schedule monster finally backs off a bit after Pittsburgh. The Ravens play a home game against the Cleveland Browns (1-2) on Oct. 11 followed by a road game against the 49ers on Oct. 18. But then comes a Monday night game in Arizona against the Cardinals, another undefeated (3-0) team looking extremely tough.

My thought all along was the Ravens could survive this daunting opening stretch if they emerged with a 3-4 record. They could then make up ground and insert themselves in the playoff picture while playing mostly at home in November and December.

But they're going to have to win three of their next four games just to get to 3-4, which means a) prevailing either in Pittsburgh or Arizona, and b) not letting down against the Browns and 49ers.

Their margin of error is gone. The monster ate it for breakfast.

It's not an impossible dream. The 1998 Buffalo Bills were the last team to start 0-3 and make the playoffs, so the odds are long, even astronomical. But I have a hard time believing the Ravens are just done for the season. There's too much football left in an unpredictable league, and parity keeps all but the worst teams in playoff contention for most of the season.

While the Ravens have issues, they also have enough going for them that that could still make things interesting if they start fighting back against a schedule monster that has stunned them with its ferocity. Right now, in this battle between man and beast, the beast is winning.

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