Run of injuries putting a painful end to Ravens' season

John Harbaugh is without a sizable portion of his starting lineup due to injuries. AP Photo/Nick Wass

BALTIMORE -- The Baltimore Ravens play the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday in Santa Clara, California, home of this season's Super Bowl. No one is expecting a return trip.

It's time to face a sobering reality about the Ravens: They're not a playoff team. To be more precise, the Ravens are a shell of one.

There are plenty of reasons why the Ravens are 1-4 for the first time in their 20-year existence. The defense isn't holding fourth-quarter leads, the offense is too sporadic and penalties are causing them to self-destruct.

But let's be honest, injuries are putting a painful end to a season of high expectations. Joe Flacco says you can't use injuries as an excuse. It's just inexcusable not to recognize this isn't the Ravens team that general manager Ozzie Newsome and coach John Harbaugh envisioned putting on the field. To say injuries have decimated this team is an understatement. The number of wounded Ravens rivals an episode of "The Walking Dead."

In overtime, the Ravens were without their top two receivers (Steve Smith and Breshad Perriman), top two running backs (Justin Forsett and Lorenzo Taliaferro), top two tight ends (Dennis Pitta and Crockett Gillmore), top two pass-rushers (Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil), a starting defensive end (Chris Canty) and two of their top three corners (Lardarius Webb and Will Davis).

In total, those players account for $37.4 million of the team's salary cap. That's over one quarter of Baltimore's cap on the sideline.

When the last-place Ravens play at San Francisco on Sunday, it's not just next man up. It's next, next, next man up.

"It's not helpful," Harbaugh said of the injuries. "As coaches, we have to find a way to put whoever is out there in a kind of position where they can be successful. That all goes hand in hand. And that was a winnable game. We should have won."

As much as that Thursday night overtime win in Pittsburgh lifted the spirits of the Ravens, the overtime loss Sunday to Cleveland squashed them. It was a demoralizing kick in the gut. It was a reality check.

The Ravens could rationalize losing to Denver and Oakland because it was on the road. They could justify falling to Cincinnati because the undefeated Bengals are one of the best teams in the league.

On Sunday, the Ravens couldn't win on a field where they dominate against an opponent they historically dominate. Since 2008, Harbaugh's first season, the Ravens had the NFL's third-best home record and a 13-1 mark against Cleveland. Baltimore failed to hold a 12-point lead (21-9) in the second half against a Browns team that ranked 20th on offense and 32nd on defense.

If that doesn't say the season is over, history will do it for you. Since 1990, only 5 percent of the teams that began 1-4 have advanced to the postseason.

"I think the record speaks for itself and what kind of challenge it is," Flacco said. "We haven't been in this position before, so I can't speak from experience. But it's not going to be easy."

Should the Ravens have had the foresight to anticipate some of these injuries? Suggs, Dumervil, Smith and Canty are over 30, and Webb has a long history of not staying healthy.

Should the Ravens be blamed for not doing enough this offseason? Baltimore lost Torrey Smith and Pernell McPhee in free agency, and the Ravens replaced them with draft picks (Perriman and Za'Darius Smith) instead of adding experienced contingency plans.

There have been too many players disappearing rather than stepping up. The Ravens' starting receivers, Kamar Aiken and Marlon Brown, didn't have a catch in the second half. Baltimore's pass-rushers, Za'Darius Smith and Jason Babin, didn't have a quarterback hit, but each drew a flag for offside on a Browns fourth-quarter touchdown drive. Tight end Maxx Williams was nonexistent. Running back Buck Allen ran too tentatively in the fourth quarter and overtime.

This is unfamiliar ground for the Ravens. Baltimore has gone to the playoffs in six of seven seasons under Harbaugh. The Ravens have never had a losing season under him.

Two weeks into October, a popular Super Bowl pick is running out of hope and players.

"It’s not going to be a matter of how we handle this adversity of being 1-4; we’ll handle it," Harbaugh said. "And we’ll compete, and we’ll fight, and we’ll practice, and we’ll prepare. We’ll put the best football team out there that we can. We can, and we will expect to win the next time we play, and that’s just how we’ll approach it.”