Let's be honest. For all the fans who think the Ravens should be getting ready to play the Indianapolis Colts in the wild-card round this weekend, it's time to get serious.
The Ravens actually deserve a lot of credit for staying in the playoff race until the final quarter of Sunday's game in Cincinnati, and it's easy enough to construct some hindsight scenarios that would have kept their streak of John Harbaugh-era postseason appearances alive.
But even a cursory review of what happened over the past season reveals that they actually overachieved in 2013.
If you doubt that, set your personal way-back machine to late July and play along as I attempt to objectively answer some tough questions that would face the defending Super Bowl champions in the ensuing months:
Q: If running back Ray Rice gets hurt early on and is a shell of his former self for most of the season, will the Ravens be able to successfully navigate the top-loaded schedule that each former division champion has to play?
A: Possibly, but that depends on whether Bernard Pierce can pick up the slack and the Ravens can get enough production out of a receiving corps that will be without Joe Flacco's go-to wideout, Anquan Boldin. Fortunately, Flacco has developed a great on-field chemistry with Dennis Pitta.
Q: So, what happens if Dennis Pitta gets hurt in training camp and isn't really a factor until late December?
A: Well, Ed Dickson would have to step up big time and Ozzie Newsome would have to send out a search party to find some veteran receivers who still haven't landed somewhere else. That's a silly doomsday scenario, since Pitta is a horse.
Q: So is Joe Flacco, but he could turn into a human punching bag if that offensive line doesn't come together in a hurry. Can the Ravens get to the postseason if opposing defenses can get to Flacco regularly?
A: Probably not, but Flacco is one tough hombre, so if he can stay healthy for 16 games you can't ever count the Ravens out. The guy is the reigning Super Bowl MVP, after all. It's not like he's going to suddenly going to morph from Joe Cool to Joe Pick and set a team record for interceptions.
Q: What if he doesn't stay healthy? What if some clumsy defensive lineman gets blocked into him and falls on his leg right at crunch time?
A: Then fans might want to modify their expectations. That would probably be a dealbreaker.
Q: Who's going to fill the leadership gap now that Ray Lewis and Ed Reed are gone, not to mention Boldin and Bernard Pollard?
A: That's pretty obvious. Lewis passed the mantle to Flacco during the playoffs and Terrell Suggs is now the unquestioned leader of the defense. But that whole leader thing is a bit overrated. If you recall, both Ray Lewis and Ed Reed were in their prime and the Ravens went 5-11 the year before Harbaugh took over.
Q: So, you're saying that if Ray Rice gets hurt, Dennis Pitta misses most of the season, the offensive line is a mess and Joe Flacco spends the season as a walking hematoma, the Ravens can't make the playoffs?
A: No, I'm saying that if all those things happen, the Ravens will probably get a top-10 draft pick next May. They would need the Steelers and the Houston Texans to fall apart just to stay in the wild card hunt until December. And you left out that freak Jacoby Jones injury in the season opener and the Marcus Spears/Michael Huff fiasco.
So much for time travel. Let's just agree to agree that the Ravens delivered a pretty entertaining season, considering all that stood in the way of a sixth straight postseason run.
It'll be a long, long time before you see two teams combine for five touchdowns in 125 seconds like the Ravens and Vikings did a few weeks ago. It'll probably be a while before Justin Tucker kicks another game-winning, 61-yard field goal on Monday Night Football.
The Ravens have been so consistent over the past six years that it's hard to imagine a postseason without them, but fans probably won't have to imagine that for long. The upside to missing the playoffs is that the Ravens will have their best draft position since of the Harbaugh era and will — at least theoretically — draw a softer 2014 schedule by virtue of their third-place finish in the AFC North.
Small consolation, perhaps, but it will have to do.
Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here" at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog and listen when he co-hosts "The Week in Review" on Friday mornings at 9 on WBAL (1090 AM) and at wbal.com.
Ravens' 2014 Opponents
The Ravens' 2014 schedule will be announced in April, but the home and road opponents are already known. Here's who the Ravens will face at home and on the road in 2014:
San Diego Chargers
New Orleans Saints
Tampa Bay Buccaneers