MIKE BURKE

Allegany Radio Corporation Sports

Last we spoke of the Baltimore Ravens here, we opined that Coach John Harbaugh deserved a ton of credit – whether we always agree with his analytics-based in-game calls or not – because, despite losing his team’s top three running backs to injury before the season even started, and despite losing his starting left offensive tackle and top cover corner shortly after the season had started, he was still grinding and holding the team together and somehow had the Ravens on a five-game winning streak and a 5-1 start.

All these weeks later, with the Ravens now at 8-8, losers of five straight games after being the top seed in the AFC with a record of 8-3, and needing a win over the Pittsburgh Steelers and a couple pockets full of miracles to even think about making the playoffs, the belief here is Harbaugh might be an even better coach than we thought he was when his team was 5-1 and 8-3.

Doesn’t make sense? Well, what has made sense in this #NFLTheTVShow season of 2021-22?

The Ravens have pretty much lost their entire team to injury, and by entire team we also mean NFL MVP quarterback Lamar Jackson, who has been out the past four weeks with a deep ankle bruise, every starter and top reserve in the defensive secondary, their top inside linebacker and defensive linemen and we can continue by drawing names from a hat, because at one time or another, all of the names have been in the hat.

Two weeks ago when the Ravens were dismantled by the AFC North champion Bengals (yeah, that’s what I said) for the second time this season, they were without 34 of the players they had intended to start the season with.

During the five-game losing streak, the first the franchise has experienced in 15 years, the Ravens were in a position to win four of them – Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Green Bay, Los Angeles – on the final possession of the game, failing on two-point conversion attempts in one-point losses to the Steelers and the Packers.

Harbaugh took heat for going for the wins in those games, rather than kick for a tie and overtime in both instances. And while I believe he does leave too many points on the field early in games, such as when he went for it on fourth-and-goal from the four on the game’s opening drive rather than take free points with a Justin Tucker field goal in the one-point loss to the Packers, I really liked the Ravens going for the wins in Pittsburgh against the Steelers and at home against the Packers.

Why take a 50-50 chance on the coin toss to try to get the first possession of an overtime merely to try to put yourself back in the position you’re already in? Win the game now, stupid.

I liked it, and I liked how Harbaugh gave his players the ownership to help him arrive at that decision. That’s not shirking responsibility as the head coach; that’s trust and team building on the part of the head coach, and every member of that team rallies around Harbaugh for it.

That said, there are no moral victories in #NFLTheTVShow. What matters is winning games, making the playoffs and winning the Super Bowl and as the Ravens themselves say as a team, “Nobody cares. Work harder.”

Yet, it is inconceivable that any team this season has worked harder than the Ravens have to try to overcome a wave of injuries that no other team in the league has come close to having to endure. And that’s not including COVID-19 absences, because every team has had to experience them during this messed-up year.

As we speak, the Ravens have a 3.5% chance of making the playoffs, according to ESPN’s Football Power Index. For that popsicle to outlast hell, the Ravens must beat the Steelers Sunday at home, the Chargers must lose at the Raiders and the Dolphins must lose to the Patriots, all of which could actually happen.

However, the Ravens also need the Jacksonville Jaguars to beat the vermin Colts at home, and this just in: That ain’t even going to come close to happening. And Vegas seems to agree, as Indianapolis opens the week as a 15.5 to 16-point favorite – on the road, no less.

What have Ravens fans learned this season and, particularly, the past five weeks? That Lamar Jackson picked the wrong season to act as his own agent in his first free-agent year. That while backup quarterback Tyler Huntley has done an outstanding job stepping in for Jackson, he is no Lamar Jackson.

Lamar Jackson is, indeed, a difference-maker at quarterback and this is most evident when he is not in at quarterback. The Ravens found this out Sunday in their final scoring drive against the Rams when they settled for a field goal, but needed a touchdown.

In other words, Ravens fans and Lamar detractors, be careful what you wish for.

The same can be said for their head coach, John Harbaugh. Yes, there are times when he comes across as being difficult to take, but through these disastrous times (in a pure football sense) for the Ravens, there likely isn’t another coach in the league that could have held this depleted band of brothers together to even have a 3.5% chance of making the playoffs in the final week of the season.

And while you think about that … Go Jags?

Mike Burke writes about sports and other stuff for Allegany Radio and Pikewood Digital. He began covering sports for the Prince George’s Sentinel in 1981 and joined the Cumberland Times-News sports staff in 1984, serving as sports editor for over 30 years. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @MikeBurkeMDT