HOUSTON — — John Harbaugh is facing another critical point in his Ravens coaching career and he's coming out swinging.
Whether it's calling out a fan on his radio show or getting in the face of a player, Harbaugh hasn't been afraid to fight back. With the Ravens trying to recover from what he called his "worst loss" in three years, Harbaugh's leadership has been put to the test as players and fans have vented their frustrations at an underachieving offense.
Standing in front of his players Wednesday, Harbaugh shared responsibility for the loss. He stood in front of the public and defended players and coaches. He's absorbed the shots — and delivered them when needed.
Harbaugh wants his players to show toughness, especially in the wake of a devastating loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers. If that message didn't resonate immediately, players understood it by Wednesday afternoon when he put them in pads for a full-contact practice.
"We never take a break from who we are identity-wise," Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis said. "He just wanted to come back and put us in pads so we could just get back to [being] physical again. And everybody gets it. Everybody gets it as soon as he does it — whether we like it or not."
Only time will tell whether Harbaugh's approach worked. On Monday night, the Ravens (8-4) play at the Houston Texans (5-7) in a pivotal prime-time game. The Ravens lead the San Diego Chargers by a game and a half for the sixth and final playoff spot in the AFC.
Players sometimes question whether Harbaugh's laborious methods are the best ones, but he's been able to get results.
The Ravens are 31-18 in the Harbaugh era, which is tied for the fourth-most wins since 2008. They haven't lost back-to-back games since October 2009. And Harbaugh is closing in on becoming the fourth coach since 1990 to lead his team to the playoffs in his first three seasons, joining Bill Cowher, Dennis Green and Barry Switzer.
The final quarter of the regular season likely will define Harbaugh as much as his team.
"This where the rubber meets the road," Harbaugh said. "Everybody is a little edgy. Everybody is a little battered. We've been through a lot emotionally together. Now, the ability to be at your best is a big challenge."
Harbaugh's confrontational style spilled outside the locker room for the first time last week. In an incident that has been talked about as much as the Ravens' loss to Pittsburgh, Harbaugh called out a fan who suggested the firing of a respected assistant coach during his weekly radio show.
"We will fight our tails off to be the best team we can be every single week," said Harbaugh, who later clarified that his comments were directed at the one caller, not all Ravens fans. "If that's not enough for you, find another team to cheer for."
Many fans were appalled. Some in the Ravens organization cringed. The players, however, simply smirked.
"He's protecting his locker room," wide receiver Derrick Mason said. "As a head coach, that's what you have to do. You have to stand up and take the bullets and protect your team."
When Harbaugh became coach, he put a large black plaque inside the locker room that reads: "Team, team, team."
He strongly believes in everyone having each other's back. But he's been known to jump on a player's back when the time calls for it.
Harbaugh has had heated arguments with players, like the flare-ups he's had with Mason over the years. He grabbed Dannell Ellerbe's jersey and chewed out the linebacker in this year's preseason finale after he showboated on an interception return for a touchdown.
As one team official described it, Harbaugh is so blunt because he respects the player enough to tell him the truth and he expects the player to be man enough to take it.
"He's a fiery coach," defensive end Cory Redding said. "He may say some things, pop off at a player and the player comes back at him. We hash it out and we move on."
In order to finish off the final quarter of the season strong, Harbaugh has to figure out a way to finish off games.
The Ravens have lost fourth-quarter leads in seven of 12 games this season. Harbaugh's record in games decided by six points or less is 6-12 (.333), including 3-4 this season.
Some fans wonder if the Ravens have "a killer instinct," but Harbaugh said he doesn't believe in that term.
"I think it's a cliché'," he said. "I've never heard anyone described it in a practical way. You execute and make plays in critical situations that win you games. You can put any term on it that you want. It's execution."
In all four of the Ravens' losses this season – Cincinnati, New England, Atlanta and Pittsburgh – the Ravens have given up the lead in the final five minutes of regulation. Asked about the Ravens' struggles to close out games, Harbaugh took a different tact in his response.