With their team at 3-2 in the AFC North, Ravens fans have reason to be hopeful, if not overly confident, that the playoffs are still very much within reach.
However, the Ravens' performance as measured in a slightly different way might portend more trouble than the team's won-lost record would indicate.
Against the point spread - the odds that are set each week to determine by how many points one team needs to beat another for wagering purposes - the Ravens are 0-5. Only two other teams, the Denver Broncos and New Orleans Saints, are winless against the oddsmakers' line this season. In contrast, the New England Patriots, who have demolished every opponent by more than two touchdowns, are 5-0.
So apart from a betting interest, does it really matter? Isn't a win a win regardless of whether it's by an inch or a mile?
Certainly, that's what you'd hear from coaches and players, who understandably keep themselves divorced from point-spread considerations. But history says a team's performance against the spread is an extremely accurate barometer of whether it will make the postseason.
Over the past 10 years, of the 120 teams that qualified for the playoffs, only 25 did so with a losing record against the spread. During that time, playoff teams were 1,037-799-84 against the line. And, remember, that's with the spread being adjusted weekly to account for the shifts in performance and daily to reflect wagering trends.
"The line is our perception of what the public's perception is about how a team will perform," said Robert Walker, the director of race and sports book operations for MGM Mirage casinos in Las Vegas, which includes the Bellagio, Mirage and others.
And the Ravens, Walker pointed out, are not a team whose spread is exaggerated because of irrational popularity, say, like the Dallas Cowboys.
"They're never going to have a huge fan base [outside of Baltimore] because they are all about defense," Walker said. "People love offense and they love to bet on offense. And right now, although they're 3-2, the Ravens aren't a lot better than everyone else. On the other hand, because they do have a good defense, you'll almost never see them as a big underdog."
Sometimes, a team that starts the season poorly against the spread is simply not as talented as everyone had thought. The Saints appear to be in that category this season. Or it might indicate something else.
"When a team has that much trouble against the spread, it's often because that team is just not performing up to its potential," said Jon Campbell, senior editor for Covers.com, a Canadian-based Internet site that provides wagering information but doesn't accept bets.
"That seems particularly true of Baltimore, where the team just hasn't seemed to get into a rhythm yet this year."
In their first five games, the Ravens were the point-spread favorites four times. Only in the opener in Cincinnati were they a slight underdog (by 2 1/2 points). The Bengals won, 27-20.
And perhaps that's what should be most troubling for Ravens fans. It's generally acknowledged that the Ravens' second-half schedule is much more difficult than the first. If the Ravens haven't been covering against lesser opponents because the team is underachieving, what does that forecast for when they have to face teams such as the Indianapolis Colts, Patriots and Pittsburgh Steelers, when clearly they will be the underdog?
Against struggling St. Louis, the Ravens are a 9 1/2 -point favorite.
Last year, when they finished the regular season 13-3, the Ravens were solid against the line at 10-6. In their three previous playoff seasons, the Ravens were better than .500 against the spread each time.
Occasionally, a team can fare miserably against the line and still be a playoff contender. In 1999, the Minnesota Vikings were 3-10-3 against the spread and failed to cover in their first six games but still went to the postseason.
But that's the exception to the rule.
The Patriots - for all of their well-known prowess that's clearly factored into the spread - are 64-34-3 versus the line in regular-season games since the 2001 season.
"There's no question about it," Walker said, "there is a direct correlation between beating the spread and success in the postseason."
The Ravens are 0-5 against the spread:
Opp. Favorite Result
@Cin. Bengals by 2 1/2 Bengals, 27-20
NYJ Ravens by 10 Ravens, 20-13
Ari. Ravens by 7 1/2 Ravens, 26-23
@Cle. Ravens by 4 Browns, 27-13
@S.F. Ravens by 3 Ravens, 9-7