With all due respect to Baltimore sports reporters and talk show hosts, or even the players and coaches themselves, the Baltimore Ravens have been badly misunderstood this season. More than anything, what they need to beat the Oakland Raiders on Sunday to earn a wild-card berth and then to advance deep in the NFL playoffs can be summed up in two words: good luck.
Luck - or perhaps a lack of it - has been the most overlooked factor in the Ravens up-and-down fortunes this season. How many games were decided by the most chance element? Last Sunday, the team's most reliable receiver dropped an easy touchdown pass. That wasn't coaching or a failed game plan or even some lack of team "chemistry" (whatever that over-used word may mean).
Even the most cursory glance at the Ravens season reveals many such moments that altered the outcomes of games. A last-minute drop was the difference in the Week 4 loss to the Patriots. In Week 6, a missed 44-yard field goal against the Vikings. The Colts were all but beaten in Week 11 until the defense made a lucky interception.
In all, four Ravens losses have been by three points or fewer. You can talk about all you want about strategies or skills, but had fortune smiled a little bit more, the team would have a 12-3 won-loss record right now and be considered a favorite in the AFC and maybe a strong contender for the Super Bowl.
Clearly, there are a multitude of things the Ravens can do better. Eliminating penalties would be a nice start. But even those calls have a certain randomness to them; sometimes a Ravens offensive lineman's hold is noticed, sometimes the opponents' pass interference isn't. Injuries are often nothing more than a bad break, too - sometimes literally.
Of course, the biggest mistake the Ravens could make is to expect such bad luck to continue forever. Teams that do are (to paraphrase a 19th century writer) running halfway to meet it.
Better to give the greatest possible effort, a lesson that extends beyond the gridiron. Chance generally favors the well-prepared, and after so many narrow losses this season, it seems destined to smile on the purple and black.