That was not a freak gust of wind you heard outside your window late Monday night. It was a collective sigh of relief from Ravens fans after Jim Harbaugh and the San Francisco 49ers returned the Pittsburgh Steelers to their rightful place as the projected fifth seed in the postseason.
The Ravens got a reprieve. The governor called the warden just in time. Now, it's up to them to make sure it's not just a temporary stay.
Not that anyone around here should be particularly worried about Saturday's visit from the Cleveland Browns. They might as well show up on Christmas Eve gift-wrapped, though John Harbaugh will describe them repeatedly this week as a dangerous opponent trying to salvage some respectability at the end of the season.
The problem is that there is one more road game left on the regular-season schedule and it's against the Cincinnati Bengals, who are still in the hunt for the last wild-card berth and always seem to put up a fight against the Ravens. It'll be a scary game unless the Steelers stumble again, and don't spend a lot of time betting on their last two opponents — the St. Louis Rams and Browns — to end the suspense in the AFC North.
Of course, it's not like this is some new issue. John Harbaugh has been asked repeatedly this season for his opinion on why the Ravens have not been a very good road team this year, and you can forgive him for not having a real answer.
"I think the fact that we haven't won as many games on the road as we should have is disappointing,'' Harbaugh said during his Monday news conference. "We've been, traditionally, pretty good on the road the last few years. So, that's something that we have to look at, and we will."
The reason he can't really explain it is because it isn't explainable. The Ravens are 7-0 at home and 3-4 on the road, a difference in performance so unusual for an elite team that it's almost impossible to make any sense of it from a nuts-and-bolts perspective. Every one of those losses happened in a different environment under a variety of competitive circumstances and involved a large number of individual events that added up to an unexpected outcome.
The fact that each loss happened on the road is not a coincidence. There is a definite home-field advantage in the NFL, which is a combination of crowd noise and comfort zone, so the Ravens figured to lose some games outside of M&T Bank Stadium. It is the quality of the first three teams they lost to and the ugly way they lost on Sunday night that makes you wonder what in the wide, wide world of sports psychology is going on here.
Here's a theory that might ease some of that angst: It's entirely possible that the early road defeats bear no relationship — either competitively or emotionally — to the lopsided loss in San Diego.
The Ravens probably did suffer an emotional letdown in their Week 2 loss to the Tennessee Titans after blowing out the Steelers in their season opener, and each of their next two losses also came after victories over projected AFC title contenders. Those three losses also came against teams that employ a 4-3 defense, which might be explained away to some extent by the loss of practice time during the labor shutdown.
There had been no apparent motivational lapses since then and the Ravens moved back near the top of everyone's NFL Power Rankings after settling into a more balanced offensive attack. That's why it was so shocking when the Chargers took them to the woodshed on Sunday night. It wasn't the fact that they lost, since San Diego was a quality opponent, but that one of the NFL's stingiest defenses looked hopelessly overmatched.
Fear not. Thanks to the 49ers and their domination of the Steelers, we can now say the loss to the Chargers was a case of West Coast-itis. The Ravens also played very poorly in Seattle, but there is relatively little chance that they will have to go coast to coast again this year.
If they beat the Browns and Bengals, they might not have to go anywhere.
Listen to Peter Schmuck when he hosts "The Week in Review" Fridays at noon on WBAL (1090AM) and wbal.com.
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