Ravens’ fight for playoff lives is nothing new

December 17, 2009 | Luke Jones

As the Baltimore Ravens continue to grapple for a postseason spot entering Week 15 (and here’s another great source for predicting your own playoff scenarios) against the Chicago Bears, the franchise finds itself in a familiar position.

While last season’s improbable run in John Harbaugh’s first season landed Baltimore in the AFC Championship, the franchise has found itself on the playoff bubble five other times in the last 11 years. Not counting the Super Bowl season of 2000 and a franchise-best regular season record of 13-3 in 2006 (the Ravens clinched a berth in Week 15 of both seasons), the Ravens’ playoff chances have always boiled down to the final week of the season.

Here’s a look back at the other “bubble” teams in the 14-year history of the Ravens, with some teams having more success than others down the stretch.

Tony Banks and Scott Mitchell
1999: 8-8 (2-1 in final three weeks), missed playoffs

Synopsis: Brian Billick’s first season as head coach saw the Ravens secure their first non-losing record. Despite starting the season third on the depth chart behind Scott Mitchell and Stoney Case, Tony Banks emerged as the starting quarterback by season’s end, leading the team to impressive wins over the eventual AFC Champion Tennessee Titans and the Pittsburgh Steelers (the Ravens’ first victory in Pittsburgh). A four-game winning streak kept the Ravens in the playoff hunt entering Week 17, but Baltimore fell to the Patriots in snowy Foxboro, 20-3. The strong second half was a precursor to a Super Bowl championship a season later, though Banks would find himself replaced by Trent Dilfer by mid-season. The soon-to-be record-breaking Baltimore defense finished second in the NFL in yards allowed.

What went wrong: Billick asked fans to take a “leap of faith” with the newly-signed—and much-maligned—Mitchell, and the experiment lasted all of 56 passing attempts and four interceptions in two losses to begin the season. The Ravens got off to a 4-7 start, too much to overcome despite the strong play of the defense and the emergence of Banks and new receiver Qadry Ismail down the stretch.

Terry Allen
2001: 10-6 (2-1 in final three weeks), Wild Card

Synopsis: Looking to defend their Super Bowl title by improving the offense, the Ravens replaced Dilfer with former Pro Bowl quarterback Elvis Grbac who struggled to win over his teammates and win games. Running back Jamal Lewis suffered a torn ACL in the first week of training camp, and the Ravens employed a committee of Terry Allen, Jason Brookins, and Moe Williams for the ground attack. Needing a win in Week 17 against the Vikings on a Monday night, the Ravens clinched a Wild Card spot with a 16-3 victory behind Allen’s 133 rushing yards and a bruising defensive performance.

What went right: While Ravens fans hold Grbac responsible for failing to repeat, the team literally had its legs cut out from under it with the loss of Lewis before the season started. While the defense could not match its record-setting numbers of a season earlier, it still finished second in yards allowed and fourth in points surrendered. Signed off the street during training camp, Allen provided an admirable effort with Brookins and Williams providing assistance. With Grbac struggling and fans clamoring for Randall Cunningham to replace him, Billick used the running game and the still-stellar defense to get into the playoffs and earn a road victory over the Dolphins in the first round before falling in Pittsburgh the next week, 27-10.

Jeff Blake
2002: 7-9 (1-2 in final three weeks), missed playoffs

Synopsis: In what was perhaps Billick’s best coaching job in his nine years as Ravens coach, the 2002 team managed to stay in the playoff hunt entering the final two weeks of the season despite saying goodbye to key veterans Shannon Sharpe, Rod Woodson, Tony Siragusa, and numerous others in the salary cap purge of the Super Bowl roster. The Ravens looked to be one of the worst teams in the NFL and got off to an 0-2 start before rebounding in a huge Monday night victory over the Broncos. Jamal Lewis returned from his lost 2001 season to rush for 1,327 yards, Todd Heap earned his first trip to the Pro Bowl, and linebacker Ed Hartwell and rookie safety Ed Reed led the defense after Ray Lewis went down with a shoulder injury early in the season. Back-to-back losses to the Browns and Steelers to close the season ended the Ravens’ improbable playoff hopes but could not devalue a very surprising season.

What went wrong: The team could not find consistency at the quarterback position with Chris Redman suffering a back injury and veteran Jeff Blake struggling with consistency. The loss of Lewis coupled with an inexperienced unit caused the defense to fall to 22nd in the NFL despite the encouraging development of several young players. Three out of four losses to end the season sealed the young team’s fate.

Jamal Lewis
2003: 10-6 (2-1 in final three weeks), AFC North champion

Synopsis: The Lewises reigned in 2003. While Ray Lewis earned his second Defensive Player of the Year award, the real story of the season was Jamal Lewis, who became just the fifth player in NFL history to rush for 2,000 yards in a season. Lewis’ 295 rushing yards against the Browns in Week 2 set a new NFL record and created the identity for the Ravens’ offense. Rookie Kyle Boller struggled before going down with a quadriceps injury, and journeyman Anthony Wright took the reins of the offense. The team clinched the AFC North title in Week 17 when the Browns knocked off the Bengals earlier in the day, but the Ravens knocked off the Steelers in overtime for good measure. Baltimore would fall at home in the Wild Card round the following week when the Titans stifled Lewis and the running game.

What went right: Jamal Lewis’ historic season made up for an otherwise ineffective offense. The defense finished third overall and was led by Ray Lewis and emerging star Ed Reed. Eight players made the Pro Bowl including both Lewises, Reed, Heap, Jonathan Ogden, Adalius Thomas, Peter Boulware, and Chris McAlister. With the Ravens struggling at 5-5, Wright threw four touchdown passes to Marcus Robinson in an improbable 44-41 comeback win against the Seahawks to initiate a three-game winning streak. However, an ugly loss to Oakland in Week 15 forced the Ravens to win their final two games to clinch the North. Lewis was up to the challenge as he shredded the Browns again for 205 yards and eclipsed the 2,000-yard mark against the Steelers with 114 yards in the overtime win to conclude the regular season.

Kyle Boller
2004: 9-7 (1-2 in final three weeks), missed playoffs

Synopsis: Following the script from the previous season, the 2004 squad struggled with consistency, as Boller completed his first full season as the starting quarterback. Once again, the defense led the way with Reed earning the Defensive Player of the Year honor, keeping the award in the Charm City for the second year in a row. A three-game winning streak in the middle of the season put the Ravens at 7-3 and on the short track to the playoffs, but losing four of five down the stretch placed their playoffs hopes on life support at 8-7. Needing a victory over the Dolphins and three other teams to lose in Week 17, the Ravens held up their end of the bargain in a 30-23 victory but didn’t receive enough help to steal a postseason spot.

What went wrong: With Jamal Lewis facing the repercussions of federal drug-related charges and serving a two-game suspension during the season, the offense plummeted to 31st in the league. Boller showed flashes of promise but lacked any consistent receiving threat with Heap missing most of the season with an ankle injury. Even with the struggles on offense, the Ravens controlled their own destiny down the stretch but lost road games to the Patriots, Steelers, and Colts and suffered a heartbreaking loss at home to the Bengals over a five-game stretch. The Ravens’ inability to win any one of these games ultimately sealed their fate.

Le'Ron McClain
2008: 11-5 (2-1 in final three weeks), Wild Card

Synopsis: With a rookie coach and quarterback, the 2008 Ravens were viewed as a rebuilding team with little chance of making noise in the AFC. However, Harbaugh reunited a divided locker room, and Flacco played more like a grizzled veteran than a quarterback playing at Delaware a season earlier. The three-headed attack of Le’Ron McClain, Willis McGahee, and Ray Rice combined for over 2,000 rushing yards, and a veteran defense finished second overall. After struggling to a 2-3 start, the Ravens won nine of their last 11 games to clinch a Wild Card spot with a 27-7 victory over the Jaguars in Week 17.

What went right: Nearly every move the Ravens made turned to gold as they marched deep into the playoffs. After receiving only eight carries in his rookie season, McClain came out of nowhere to rush for 902 yards to lead the ground attack, taking the pressure off the rookie Flacco. After getting off to a slow start due to a lingering neck and shoulder condition, Reed completed one of the greatest defensive stretches in NFL history by intercepting eight passes and scoring two touchdowns over the season’s final six weeks. After losing to the Steelers at home due to a controversial Santonio Holmes touchdown, the Ravens needed to steal one on the road against the Cowboys. Instead, motivated by rumors that they were handpicked as an easy opponent in the Texas Stadium finale, the Ravens dominated the Cowboys in a 33-24 victory. With a Week 17 win that was more of a formality than a challenge, the Ravens entered the playoffs and won two road games before falling to the Steelers in the AFC Championship game.

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