Ravens stumble toward postseason

Unlike for the New York Giants, the FOX America’s Game of the Week is not a must-win affair for the Baltimore Ravens.

The Ravens are in the playoffs already. They could even fall Sunday to the Giants (4:25 p.m. ET kickoff) and still capture the AFC North title with a Week 17 victory in Cincinnati.

However, such a scenario doesn’t make the possibility of a fourth consecutive loss any more appealing.

No bona fide AFC Super Bowl contender has stumbled down the stretch like the Ravens (9-5). Defensive injuries and offensive inconsistency have flattened a squad that may head into the postseason as a wild card after slipping from front-runner status for a first-round bye.

“People say we’re backing into the playoffs,” Ravens running back Ray Rice told FOXSports.com. “You know what? I’m not making any excuses. We have to play better. We have to put it all together right now.”

Baltimore deserves kudos for being the only franchise to qualify for the playoffs in each of the past five years. But unless there is a turnaround this season, the Ravens will have failed to reach the Super Bowl in all of them.

The last club to fall short in five consecutive playoff seasons was Miami from 1997 to 2001. The window of opportunity finally closed, and the Dolphins still haven’t reopened it.

Is the same happening in Baltimore? There are some disturbing signs.

The futures of two future Hall of Fame defensive stalwarts remain in question beyond this season because of how tight the Ravens are projected to be under the 2013 salary cap, especially if there is the need to use a $15 million franchise tag on unsigned quarterback Joe Flacco. Free safety Ed Reed is set to become an unrestricted free agent, and 37-year-old inside linebacker Ray Lewis was showing signs of slippage before tearing his triceps in Week 6.

Reed is still considered one of the best at his position. The Ravens may be able to field a better player to take Lewis’ place, but nobody can duplicate his fiery style of locker-room leadership. Other veterans could be on the chopping block as well.

Flacco’s inconsistent 2012 campaign also has raised questions about whether he is worthy of a long-term contract extension. His struggles, and the internal feeling that the offense had plateaued, are two of the reasons coordinator Cam Cameron was fired before last week’s 34-17 loss to Denver.

Rice hopes a return to basics under new coordinator Jim Caldwell can get his unit back on track.

“We have to keep simple,” said Rice, whose spotty usage in 2012 was another mark against Cameron. “We had to take some things out that we didn’t need, and we’ve got to get back to doing the things we do really well.”

Ravens head coach John Harbaugh told FOXSports.com that his team’s biggest failing during the three-game losing streak was “turnovers and not converting on third downs. That’s been an inconsistency all year and an area where we have to break through. When we keep the chains moving, we’re really dangerous. When we don’t, we struggle like any offense.”

Defensively, injuries have cost Baltimore the services of 12 starters and backups for a combined total of 41 games. This has forced the Ravens to field eight different starting linebackers — including multiple replacements for pass-rushing demon Terrell Suggs (Achilles tendon/biceps) — and juggle their secondary outside of Reed and cornerback Cary Williams. Baltimore is on pace to surrender 351 points, which would be the team’s second-highest total in the past decade.

“The (replacement) guys are expected to play at the same level. But when (injuries) start to add up a little bit, you’re going to have some drop-off,” Harbaugh said. “Plays don’t get made quite as often as when you need them in critical situations. Often times, you overcome that. Sometimes, you don’t. The last three weeks, we just haven’t.”

A self-described optimist by nature, Harbaugh still feels bullish about what Baltimore can accomplish. This isn’t blind faith. Some injured Ravens, including Lewis, should be back before the playoffs. Baltimore also isn’t that far removed from an undefeated November, and two of the defeats in the current losing streak came by a field goal against quality opposition (Washington and Pittsburgh).

“Sometimes, you forget how hard it is to win games,” said Harbaugh, who has led Baltimore to the NFL’s second-highest victory total (58) since becoming head coach in 2008. “Unfortunately, we’ve been reminded in a very big way.

“It’s not a bad thing. I’m kind of a providence guy. Things happen for a reason. There’s good to come out of this. I can’t wait to see what it’s going to be.”

Harbaugh isn’t the only anxious one.

“It’s a week-by-week deal, but this is essentially playoff football right now,” Rice said. “We’ve got to play Raven football and get back to our physical nature. Let’s try not to let one slip.”