Rebound or rebuild: Ravens face breaking point as franchise

OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- A loss to the Cincinnati Bengals will do more than crush the Baltimore Ravens' playoff hopes.

It will likely put the finishing touches on one of the more successful eras of the past decade.

If the Ravens fall to the Bengals, their playoff chances will plummet to 7.7 percent, according to ESPN's Football Power Index. Not making the postseason for a fourth straight season could lead to the firing of coach John Harbaugh, the parting of ways with starting quarterback Joe Flacco and a complete makeover of the roster.

Losers of three straight games, the Ravens (4-5) are no longer facing a make-or-break point for their season. Sunday's game has the power to change the direction of one of the most stable franchises in the NFL.

Outside linebacker Terrell Suggs, the longest tenured Ravens player, said it's "inappropriate" to ask about the future when there is so much riding on the present.

"For the question, I think it will answer itself in due time," Suggs said. "It’s one of those things where we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it, but we’re damn sure not there. So the only thing we’re really focused on around here is the Cincinnati Bengals."

A victory over the Bengals would hold off talk about pushing the panic or reset buttons. Baltimore's playoff chances would jump to 43 percent, and the Ravens would be in the thick of the race for the AFC's No. 6 and final playoff seed.

The Ravens have the sixth-easiest remaining schedule. Their last six opponents have a combined 27-28-1 record. Only two teams with winning records (the Kansas City Chiefs and Los Angeles Chargers) are in the final stretch for Baltimore.

Slot receiver Willie Snead scoffed when asked if there is a sense of urgency in the locker room.

"I feel nothing but excitement," Snead said. "I’m looking at the rest of our schedule, and I’m looking at teams we play next, and they’re all winnable games. And we’re definitely in the hunt of things. We just have to take care of one game at a time. I feel like this is going to be a great opportunity against the Bengals. They took care of us last time, and I think coming into our place, after a bye week, after a three-game losing streak, I think we’ll have a lot of momentum coming into this game."

To get into the playoff picture, the Ravens have to overcome their biggest stumbling block in recent years. Baltimore has lost eight of its 10 meetings with Cincinnati, and it might have to turn to rookie first-round pick Lamar Jackson to replace injured starting quarterback Joe Flacco (hip).

Losing to the Bengals could eventually lead to the Ravens' third major rebuild in franchise history. In 2002, the Ravens underwent a salary-cap purge by releasing 10 players, including two future Hall of Famers (safety Rod Woodson and tight end Shannon Sharpe). In 2013, Baltimore became the first reigning Super Bowl champion to part ways with eight starters, including linebacker Ray Lewis, safety Ed Reed and wide receiver Anquan Boldin.

This offseason, the Ravens can create $46.4 million in cap space for new general manager Eric DeCosta, who replaces Ozzie Newsome. Seven of Baltimore's eight highest salary-cap numbers are held by players 30 or older: Flacco ($10.5 cap savings), cornerbacks Jimmy Smith ($9.5 million) and Brandon Carr ($5 million), guard Marshal Yanda ($7 million), safety Eric Weddle ($6.5 million), wide receiver Michael Crabtree ($4.6 million) and safety Tony Jefferson ($3.3 million). That doesn't include moving on from Suggs, who is in the final year of his contract.

"We’re going to go play better and go get some wins and see what happens," Weddle said. "Whatever happens after the season is going to happen. They’re going to go do what they want to do to get us better. If I’m there, I’m there. If not … but I have seven games to live it up and have fun and go play great."

The Harbaugh-Flacco era has been the most successful period in Ravens history. This tandem has produced the NFL's fifth-most wins (96) since 2008. But if the Ravens are unable to change their fortune over the next two months, a new chapter could begin for the franchise.

"If we want to be one of those teams, then we have to go earn it -- make it happen," Harbaugh said. "There are those who write history and those who make history. Well, you know what? If you have a chance to make history, then you write the history, too. So we write our story for the next seven games. We’ll write the story of the Ravens’ 2018 season by how we play in the next seven weeks."