Future is now: John Harbaugh begins his most critical stretch

OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- John Harbaugh has coached the Baltimore Ravens in the highest-stakes games in the NFL, from capturing a Super Bowl to winning playoff games in New England, Pittsburgh, Denver and Kansas City.

But as far as his future in Baltimore is concerned, there haven't been much bigger games than Harbaugh's next two: home against the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Cincinnati Bengals.

Beating those AFC North teams would end the Ravens' recent tailspin and make them the favorites to take the division. Losing those games would essentially eliminate Baltimore from the AFC North race and make it an uphill battle to reach the playoffs, which could put Harbaugh's 11-year run with the Ravens in jeopardy.

This is how important these next two games are for the Ravens: If they beat the Steelers and Bengals, ESPN's Football Power Index projects the Ravens to make the playoffs 85.6 percent of the time. If they lose both games, Baltimore's projected chances of reaching the postseason plummet to 10.4 percent.

Harbaugh addressed where the Ravens (4-4) stood after their 36-21 loss to the Carolina Panthers, Baltimore's third defeat in four weeks.

"We’re a game out of first place, and we have our season in front of us," Harbaugh said. "We’d all love to have a better record than we do right now. We probably should have a better record, but the record is what it is. That’s our starting point. That’s what we fight from."

The fight begins with Sunday's game against the division-leading Steelers (4-2-1) and the Nov. 18 game against the second-place Bengals (5-3), which comes after Baltimore's bye.

By knocking off Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, Baltimore would improve to 6-4 and play host to the struggling Oakland Raiders the next week. That could place the Ravens atop the division, considering the November opponents for the Steelers (home against Panthers, at Jaguars and at Broncos) and Bengals (home against the Saints and Browns).

By falling to the Steelers and Bengals, the Ravens would drop at least two games back of first place and have a 1-4 record in the AFC North. To reach 9-7 -- only three AFC teams with that mark have made the postseason the past five seasons -- Baltimore would have to win five of its last six regular-season games. That would represent a steep challenge because the Ravens have road games in December against the Kansas City Chiefs (7-1) and Los Angeles Chargers (5-2).

To make the task even more difficult, the Ravens head into this critical stretch with a banged-up offensive line (three starters are injured) and a top-ranked defense that has given up 53 points in the past five quarters and has had difficulty forcing turnovers.

"We have two division games coming up and both at home. We have to win them," safety Tony Jefferson said. "We’re still in the thick of things. We have to come back and get the wins. We’re at home for a long time, thank God. We got to win these games coming up."

Harbaugh's job security became a hot topic among the Ravens' fan base after Sunday's embarrassing loss in Carolina. Since winning the Super Bowl, Harbaugh is 45-45 (including the playoffs) with one postseason victory.

Harbaugh hasn't led Baltimore to the playoffs the past three seasons. The only active head coach with a longer drought is the New York Jets' Todd Bowles (four straight non-playoff seasons).

While owner Steve Bisciotti refused to issue the "playoffs or bust" ultimatum this offseason, he acknowledged that he considered firing Harbaugh after last season.

Harbaugh, who wouldn't have any trouble finding a head-coaching job if he were let go, put the brunt of Sunday's loss in Carolina on his shoulders. That weight will get heavier if the Ravens fail to beat the Steelers and Bengals the next two games.

"He's our leader, and that's what leaders do: They take the blame," safety Eric Weddle said. "And that's why we fight for our coach. But it's on us as players to get this thing turned around, and Harbs will be the reason for it."