OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- While Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh didn't use the words "must-win," his message was clear about what Sunday's game against the New York Jets represents.
"If we don't win this game, it's going to be really tough," Harbaugh said Monday. "It couldn't be more important. I can't think of a situation this year that could be more important than this game."
Under the current playoff format which began in 1990, only 7 percent of teams to start 4-6 went on to make the playoffs, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Luckily for the Ravens, this isn't most years.
The Ravens (4-6) are one game behind the Jets for the last playoff spot in the AFC. The next few weeks should sort out a crowded postseason race in the AFC, where there are two teams at 5-5 (Jets and Miami Dolphins) and six teams at 4-6 (Ravens, Oakland Raiders, Tennessee Titans, Pittsburgh Steelers, Cleveland Browns and San Diego Chargers).
"We're in the hunt," Harbaugh said. "We're playing two teams (Jets and Steelers) in the next two weeks at home that are right there in the hunt with us. We're chasing a division leader (two games behind the Cincinnati Bengals) that we have in our sights and that we play again. We are right there. We can do it, and we're good enough to do it. We've got every tool we need. All we have to do is go get it done. But that's on us. We believe we have what it takes. It's up to us to prove it. We've got to go prove it by winning these games."
A win over the Jets, along with a Dolphins' loss Sunday against the Carolina Panthers, would create a bigger logjam. A loss for the Ravens would drop them two games behind the Jets with five weeks remaining.
So, while the Ravens have their worst record this late in the season under Harbaugh, they could be in a worse position if not for the parity in the AFC.
"What it goes to show you is how close it is, and what a razor-thin margin it is in the National Football League," Harbaugh said. "That's what makes the National Football League great. We'd all rather be sitting here talking about being atop the division and chasing a home-field advantage or something like that. That's something we were shooting for. We wanted to be in that position. We haven't done the things we needed to do to be in that position."
Close games have been a difference-maker for Baltimore. Last season, the Ravens had the most wins (five) in games decided by three points or fewer. This season, Baltimore is tied with the Houston Texans and Jacksonville Jaguars -- not exactly elite company -- for the most losses (four) in games decided by three points or fewer.
The Ravens have hurt themselves with too many mistakes in those games. Baltimore ranks 10th in the NFL in giveaways (18) and eighth in the NFL in penalties (71). In Sunday's overtime loss in Chicago, the Ravens messed up on third-and-goal in the final seconds of regulation when center Gino Gradkowski's snap went into the mud, and they let Bears receiver Alshon Jeffery go uncovered on a crossing route on a critical third down in overtime.
"The thing we talked about today was the fact that we create too many opportunities for our opponent," Harbaugh said. "That's what we do too much this year. I think that's the biggest difference in other years when we've won these close games. They're going to make enough plays on their own without creating opportunities for them. We've got to a better job of that, starting right now."