BALTIMORE -- For most of the dreary afternoon and evening on Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium, the Baltimore Ravens appeared out of sync and unsure of themselves against the New England Patriots. But when the rout was over, and the humbling 41-7 loss was in the books, that's when the defending Super Bowl champions really looked out of their element and on unfamiliar terrain.
For the first time in the six-year John Harbaugh coaching era in Baltimore, the Ravens aren't entirely sure where to go from here. They know they still have a shot at making the playoffs for an NFL-best sixth consecutive year, but they also know they need to win their Week 17 game at AFC North champion Cincinnati, and get help. And that's the scenario Baltimore was struggling to fully grasp in the wake of the franchise's most lopsided loss since 1997, and worst home loss ever.
"I don't think we've ever needed some help and a win,'' said Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco, who, like Harbaugh, has never missed the playoffs since becoming a Raven in 2008. "We've always kind of controlled our own destiny. We've had to win in the last game of the season against the Bengals to get ourselves into the playoffs. We've had to win to win the division, I think, once. But we've never had to rely on anything else.''
Better get used to it, Joe. That's the sad state the Ravens (8-7) find themselves in entering the final week of the regular season, as foreign as that concept might sound. With the Bengals (10-5) having drilled Minnesota 42-14 to lock up the division title on Sunday, their first since 2009, only the AFC's second wild-card berth remains for Baltimore. And the path to it is not at all clear-cut.
The Ravens, just 2-5 on the road this season, have to win at Cincinnati, where they've lost three of their past four games. And they need either Miami (8-7) or San Diego (8-7) to lose, with the Dolphins playing host to the Jets (7-8) in Week 17 and the Chargers staying home to face the Chiefs (11-4).
The Ravens thus need help from the Jets, who beat Cleveland 24-13 on Sunday but haven't won two in a row all season; or they need help from the Chiefs, who lost at home Sunday to Indianapolis and have nothing to play for next week at San Diego, having already locked themselves in place as the AFC's No. 5 seed. And have I mentioned that San Diego has already beaten Kansas City this season, on the road at Arrowhead Stadium in Week 12?
Things do look bleak for Baltimore, which can win a two-team tiebreaker with either Miami (having beaten the Dolphins head-to-head) or San Diego (due to a better AFC record). But it's the three-way tiebreaker that would do in Baltimore, by virtue of Miami's superior conference record.
And there's even one more too-ridiculous-to-fathom twist that the Ravens have to at least be aware of next week: If the Ravens, Dolphins and Chargers should all lose, and the back-from-the-dead Steelers (7-8) win at home against Cleveland (4-11), Pittsburgh would be the AFC's No. 6 seed, having in essence flipped a coin with two weeks left in the regular season and watched as it landed on its side.
Can you imagine? Pittsburgh back in the playoffs, along with the Bengals, but the Ravens sent home in January? All after Baltimore had started Sunday with the chance to go 2-0 in the final two weeks and win the AFC North in comeback fashion, after slip-sliding to a post-Super Bowl 4-6 getaway this season. That's how much changed for Baltimore during the course of New England's three-hour-plus butt-kicking of the Ravens.
"That's what happens when you stumble a little bit during the regular season, you come to the end and you have to fight your way into the playoffs,'' Ravens right guard Marshal Yanda said. "That's what we're having to do, and it's not easy. We didn't get it done today, and now it's a must-win for Sunday and then we need to get some help from somebody. But we've got to beat Cincinnati first, so let's give them their respect. They're playing well.''
So were the Ravens before Sunday. They entered the game with a four-game winning streak, but got dismantled by the Patriots. New England jumped out to a 14-0 first-quarter lead, never let the Ravens cut within 13 points of the lead, and poured it on Baltimore during the course of a 21-point fourth quarter. So much for the notion that these two non-division AFC rivals play nothing but close games, and the Ravens are big-game tested.
"We generally have a great track record playing in big games, especially at home,'' Baltimore receiver Torrey Smith said. "But at the end of the day, you still have to go out there and play. We didn't make enough plays and move the ball on offense. We didn't get it done when we needed to.''
It was Patriots head coach Bill Belichick who uncharacteristically let his team cut out of practice Friday afternoon to go watch the new Mark Wahlberg movie, Lone Survivor. But I bet Baltimore thought it would steal that script for itself early Sunday evening, winning the game that would help set up another deep playoff run.
Instead, the Ravens went without a completion to a wide receiver in the first half, converted just 5-of-17 third or fourth downs, and committed four turnovers, including three Flacco interceptions. Mix in nine Baltimore penalties for 83 yards, and the Ravens did nothing to enhance their reputation as one of the better clutch teams in the league.
"It's disappointing,'' said Flacco, who said he was not bothered in the least by wearing a brace on the left knee that suffered an MCL sprain on Monday night in Detroit. "We're used to going out there and playing well when we needed to when the playoffs are on the line. We came out today hungry and ready to get ourselves into the playoffs or make that next step toward it, and we just didn't do it.''
While the Patriots (11-4) locked up another AFC East title with Miami's loss at Buffalo, and took a huge step toward earning the conference's No. 2 seed in the postseason, Baltimore was one of several teams that damaged its playoff hopes or potential seeding. Miami and Kansas City joined the Ravens in those ranks in the AFC, while New Orleans, Detroit, Green Bay, Chicago and Seattle lost and did the same in the NFC.
But the blowout in Baltimore resonated so loudly because the Ravens usually help their cause at this time of year, and because they've done as good a job as anyone in the NFL against New England in recent seasons.
While Harbaugh tried to strike a positive tone in the postgame, saying his club still had "a lot at stake next week,'' and that the loss to the Patriots "doesn't change too much,'' his players weren't really buying it. It certainly felt like something had changed dramatically in a few short hours for the champs.
"It's [weird] especially for me,'' Smith said. "Since I came in [in 2011], you can't tell me it's not handed to you every year. Now it's tough. But we played the games. We are what we are because we earned it. If we would have won the division and been undefeated right now we would be there because we earned it, and because of the way we played.
"We are who we are because of the way we played. There's no secrets to it. It's on us to go out there and take care of business next weekend and see what happens. It's not really a great feeling knowing that you need help. I'm not going to lie: It's awesome when you know three weeks out that you're going to make the playoffs. That's not this season.''
Nope. Not in Baltimore. Not this year. They might be the NFL's surest bet when it comes to being a playoff perennial, but from here on out in 2013, the Ravens are in unchartered territory.