Maybe it won't be fair, but today's game against the Oakland Raiders at Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum is going to determine - for a lot of people - whether the 2009 season has been a success or a failure for the Ravens.
Obviously, if they are still playing next week, it can't be characterized as anything but another good season for second-year head coach John Harbaugh, who led the Ravens to the AFC title game a year ago. I mean, just how much more could you reasonably have expected in such a short time frame?
If, on the other hand, the so-so Raiders stage an ambush that knocks the Ravens out of the playoffs and leaves them at a mediocre 8-8, it's going to be hard to make a case that 2009 wasn't a step backward for a team that spent a big chunk of the season tripping over its own feet.
That probably won't happen, because the one thing that the Ravens have done consistently during the Harbaugh era is beat the teams they are supposed to beat, but I think everybody realizes they need to come out of the game with more than just a 9-7 record to prove that they're really a playoff-caliber team.
Let's be honest. The same Ravens team that is listed as a double-digit favorite on the other coast has proven to be more than capable of enough assorted brain cramps to make for a very suspenseful afternoon. I'm pretty sure Harbaugh would settle for winning ugly now and worrying about the postseason later, but there are a lot of reasons his team needs to do more than - as Al Davis might say - just win, baby.
Everybody saw what happened in Pittsburgh last week, and everybody knows that another undisciplined performance like that in the postseason would do more than doom the Ravens' long-shot Super Bowl hopes. It would also leave a cloud over the young Harbaugh era, even in the wake of two straight playoff runs in two seasons.
Harbaugh came to Baltimore with a mandate to change the culture of a team that had developed a reputation around the league for the same kind of unruly behavior that undermined a very strong second-half performance at Heinz Field last Sunday. Obviously, he still has some work to do on that count, and he said as much in the aftermath of a clearly avoidable loss to the Steelers.
That's why the superficial result of the game in Oakland might only produce an equally superficial judgment on this season. The Ravens might be able to win in spite of themselves and add a playoff game to their 2009 resume, but it will be the way they play that tells you whether they really have a chance to get deep into the postseason.
This particular game calls for both a must-win sense of urgency and the kind of businesslike approach that assures that little is left to chance against a team that is very capable of spoiling their season. The Raiders have beaten their share of contending teams, and knocking the Ravens out of the playoffs would be a nice way to step into the new year.
It wouldn't change the fact that Harbaugh was the right coach at the right time when the Ravens hired him after a disappointing 2007 season. That should already be apparent from two years among the most competitive teams in the AFC. It might, however, push him to rethink the way he installs his team-first philosophy in next year's model.
Ravens fans can only hope it doesn't come to that. Enough of the right dominoes have fallen in the right direction over the past few weeks to make last Sunday's meltdown little more than a hard lesson for a team that has a chance to jell at just the right time.
If the Ravens take that lesson to heart - and prove they can keep their heads - this will have been a very successful season no matter what happens on the road to Miami.
Listen to Peter Schmuck when he hosts "Sportsline" on WBAL (1090 AM) and check out "The Schmuck Stops Here" at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog.