CONVENTIONAL wisdom says that there is never a good time for a rift to open within a team. Of course, that's the conventional wisdom espoused by the team itself. Who wants to get exposed as a group tearing at the seams at any time, much less in the final week of an underachieving season with a playoff berth still within reach?
The Ravens certainly don't like it. But contrary to the spin coming out in the wake of the revelations of team disharmony the past week, this is the best thing that could have happened to them, and at the best time.
Imagine the alternative: The Ravens beat up on the Dolphins today in the regular-season finale at M&T Bank Stadium. The Bills go to Pittsburgh and lose -- to Tommy Maddox and Verron Haynes, yet. The Broncos lose at home to Indianapolis, with Peyton Manning playing the entire game. The Jaguars, with Byron Leftwich and Fred Taylor less than 100 percent, complete their freefall and lose at lowly Oakland.
Suddenly, against all the odds, the Ravens are in the AFC playoffs, just as they have said they would be all along. And this all happens without key performers on the Ravens having fessed up to the internal problems the past few weeks.
The upshot? All the dissension remains out of sight. The issues about lack of chemistry get buried. Everything gets smoothed over. What could be wrong? The Ravens made the playoffs, just as they had last season, and if they come up a little short on the Super Bowl prediction, so be it. Things aren't as bad as it all seemed, right?
It would be just as bad, maybe worse, because there would be a chance that none of the obvious problems, the ones the players themselves can't even deny, even get addressed, much less solved.
It happens all the time in every sport -- a team slips into the playoffs and convinces itself that it's only a player away, or only needs a tweak in the coaching staff, or a little more health or luck or experience in certain places. The team convinces itself, and everyone else, that it's better than it really is.
Has it happened around here lately? How about this: It happened to this team this year.
That's why it's in the predicament it's in now, begging for help from teams that have nothing to play for and no incentive to tip any scales in the Ravens' favor. They started the Super Bowl hype rolling and didn't begin to back off until they'd been dominated one more time by a superior team, the Steelers, that failed to cower at the mere sight of the self-proclaimed future champs.
The truth is that the Ravens flunked every major test they faced, each of the tough road games they needed to justify their perceived position among the elite. In the span of barely a month, they lost at New England, Indianapolis and Pittsburgh by a combined 64-20.
What could backing into the last playoff berth at the 11th hour do to negate that? Is anyone expecting them to catch lightning in a bottle, reverse the trends they set against quality teams, and get hot in the postseason?
But don't believe me, believe cornerback Chris McAlister, who joined the chorus Wednesday. "Even if we were going to the playoffs, it's not a healthy situation," he said.
There also is a noticeable groundswell among the fans who, while expected to jam into the stadium today to cheer on a possible rout of the Dolphins, aren't harboring much more than desperation about the situation. Callers to the Ravens' flagship station last week came off as resigned to their team's fate, what little they control.
More important, they sensed, in the wake of the uncharacteristic late-season slide, that even their making the playoffs doesn't make them a playoff team.
It's not an unfair distinction. In fact, in light of all the ridicule being heaped on the last few stragglers into the NFC playoffs, ask yourself which contenders are more worthy. The Ravens, possibly 9-7 in a brutal conference but losers of four of six, including a still-inexplicable gag at home against Cincinnati, and now venting about chemistry? Or the Saints, laughingstocks a month ago but possible qualifiers at 8-8 if they extend their current three-game winning streak one more game?
Or, better yet, the Panthers, who by making the postseason would cap a comeback from a 1-7 start and a devastating run of injuries? (The latter two teams play each other today, by the way.)
The quick answer: The Ravens don't look like a playoff team or sound like a playoff team. It's hard to believe that even if the dominoes fall right today and they become a playoff team, the look or sound will change.
So it's good that the light is now shining on the dark underbelly of this season. No excuses, no denials, no avoiding the issue. Beat the Dolphins, give the loyal fans a treat, finish the season right. But whether the season ends today or later, face the problems and fix them.
Not sure what they are? There are a few players in the home locker room willing to fill you in.