Ravens face crossroads after embarrassing loss to Panthers

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- After the Baltimore Ravens were out-played, out-coached and out-everythinged in a 36-21 loss to the Carolina Panthers, the sense of urgency wasn't just measured in what the players said. It's where they said it.

"I just said in the shower right now, we have to win six games at least to get us to the playoffs, to the dance," Jimmy Smith said. "That's what we're determined to do. No question."

Sunday's game against the upstart Carolina Panthers could've solidified their standing as a playoff team. Instead, after a midseason meltdown, the Ravens are 4-4, third place in the AFC North and at a crossroads in one of the most critical seasons in franchise history.

When a team is in the midst of a three-year playoff drought, the next two games -- home against the Steelers and Bengals -- will go a long way in defining this season as well as the futures of coach John Harbaugh and quarterback Joe Flacco.

"We're 4-4. We're an average team," safety Eric Weddle said. "We just lost, got blown out, so we're I wouldn't say [at] rock bottom, but we've got to look at ourselves and get back to work."

Two weeks ago, the Ravens were atop the division. Now, Baltimore has projected 69 percent chance of making the playoffs, according to Football Power Index.

The NFL's top-ranked defense suddenly can't cover or get to the quarterback, especially since the thigh injury to Marlon Humphrey. The league's No. 9 offense can't consistently move the ball behind a beaten-up offensive line.

The pressure certainly ratchets up for Harbaugh and Flacco after an offseason in which owner Steve Bisciotti acknowledged he contemplated firing Harbaugh and the Ravens drafted quarterback Lamar Jackson in the first round.

But, after playing five of their first eight games on the road, the Ravens can still right the season, albeit with a dwindling margin for error. Baltimore can make up ground in November, when the team plays host to the division-leading Steelers (4-2-1) and the second-place Bengals (5-3).

"We are obviously not in the most ideal situation possible, but we still have eight games left," Flacco said. "I feel like we have the opportunity to play really good football. We just have to make sure to keep the focus on that. I think there is obviously a bigger threat now to let this stuff affect you mentally, let it affect the team and how we are gelling together. We just have to combat that just by being ourselves and being as tough as we possible can."

Baltimore's toughness was not on display at Bank of America Stadium. The Ravens got pushed around so badly that they trailed 24-7 by halftime.

The Baltimore defense entered this game leading the NFL in fewest points and yards and topping the league in sacks. The Ravens left without sacking Cam Newton (271 total yards), giving up twice the amount of points as their season average and still appearing unsure where the Panthers' misdirection plays were going.

Flacco and Baltimore's offense committed three turnovers and five penalties. Flacco finished 22-of-39 for 192 yards and two interceptions behind an offensive line that was without two injured starters (left guard Alex Lewis and right tackle James Hurst) and lost left tackle Ronnie Stanley for nearly two series.

For a team that couldn't get on the same page during the game, the coaches and players were in unison after the fourth-largest margin of defeat over the past three seasons.

"We got our butts kicked today," Flacco said.

"It was definitely a punch to the gut," guard Marshal Yanda said.

"We just didn't have it," Harbaugh said. "It starts with me. It's on my shoulders completely. I take full responsibility for it. It's one that we've got to put behind us and move forward to the next game."

Unfortunately for the Ravens, this follows a troubling recent trend. Baltimore didn't make the playoffs the past two seasons after starting strong and reaching the midway point at 4-4.

The Ravens can't afford to slip up during their home stretch, because they have road games in December against the Kansas City Chiefs (7-1) and Los Angeles Chargers (5-2).

And the failure to beat the rival Steelers on Sunday would drop the Ravens to below .500 and 1-3 in the division.

"If we don't perform how we want to next week, there's definitely going to be some problems," linebacker C.J. Mosley said. "Mentally and physically, we lost this game. But at the end of the day, we know what we have to do next week."