OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Before absorbing the most lopsided home defeat in franchise history, the Baltimore Ravens hoped a win at Cincinnati in the season finale this Sunday would provide them with a third straight AFC North title.
Now, beating the Bengals might not even be good enough to get the defending Super Bowl champs a return trip to the playoffs.
The Ravens' 41-7 loss to New England on Sunday ended their four-game winning streak and ruined any chance they had to capture the division crown. Even worse, Baltimore (8-7) lost control of its own fate and now needs help to reach the postseason for a sixth consecutive year.
The only way the Ravens can qualify for the playoffs is as the second AFC wild-card team. Baltimore must beat Cincinnati and hope either Miami (8-7) or San Diego (8-7) loses or ties, or, in a stretch, the Ravens can make it with a loss if San Diego and Miami also lose and Pittsburgh (7-8) ties or loses.
"The guys know the scenarios. They're not living in a vacuum, so they understand what else has to happen," coach John Harbaugh said Monday. "But our job and our task is one single-minded purpose — to win the next game."
Cincinnati, the new AFC North champion, stands in the way of Baltimore's quest to earn a playoff berth. The Bengals (10-5) could opt to rest their starters, but Harbaugh isn't counting on that happening.
"Obviously we have everything at stake and Cincinnati's got much at stake, too," he said. "Not everything — they've got the division and they're in the playoffs — but they've got some seeding issues that they're playing for. So it's going to be a highly contested game."
That was what everyone expected to happen when New England came to Baltimore in a rematch of the AFC title game. But the Patriots bolted to a 17-0 lead, maintained control throughout and turned it into a rout with three touchdowns in the final 125 seconds to hand the Ravens the second-worst defeat in franchise history behind a 37-0 embarrassment in Pittsburgh on Nov. 9, 1997.
But all is not lost.
"If we win, there still is a chance we can get in," linebacker Terrell Suggs said. "We'll take that any day."
Baltimore can't win if it performs as it did against the Patriots. The Ravens committed four turnovers, yielded four sacks and went 0 for 3 on fourth-down situations.
After failing to convert a fourth-and-3 and a fourth-and-1 in the third quarter, Harbaugh opted to kick a field goal on fourth-and-5 from the New England 19 with the Ravens trailing 20-0. The 37-yard kick sailed wide left, ending Tucker's run of 33 straight field goals.
On Monday, Harbaugh expressed regret over the decision to kick the ball instead of keeping his offense on the field.
"If I had to do that one again, I would've gone for that," he said.
It hardly made a difference. The Patriots were just too good, and Baltimore was historically bad.
"We didn't make enough plays and move the ball on offense," wide receiver Torrey Smith said. "We didn't get it done when we needed to. We just weren't consistent enough as a team and it hurts."
So now it's up to the Ravens beat Cincinnati and hope the New York Jets can defeat Miami or Kansas City can upend San Diego.
"What we really control is going out there and winning," running back Ray Rice said. "It's a huge game for us. It's probably not a huge game for Cincinnati, but we've still got to go out there and win."
It's been a battle all season for the Ravens, who were 4-6 in mid-November before peeling off four straight wins. Someone asked Harbaugh if this team can count on that kind of resiliency to rebound from Sunday's debacle.
"Absolutely. It's part of who we are," he said. "If you've been watching us all year, you would know that. Over the last six years, you'd understand that about us."