The chances of the Baltimore Ravens making the NFL playoffs are so slim that Coach Brian Billick has chosen not to give it more than passing reference when he speaks to his team.
"Why put all your eggs in one basket?" he said today, knowing that the Ravens could be eliminated before kickoff Sunday against the Steelers in Pittsburgh. "The challenge is to play hard because you're a professional. We need to learn from it, carry that into whatever we do, whether it's next week or next year."
For the Ravens (7-8) to make it into the postseason they need to beat the Steelers and all six AFC teams with 8-7 records must lose. One of them, the Kansas City Chiefs, has a road game Saturday against a 10-5 Oakland Raiders team that needs a victory to improve its position in the playoffs.
Baltimore also needs the New England Patriots, Denver Broncos, Cleveland Browns, New York Jets and San Diego Chargers to lose. If all that takes place, the Ravens would earn a wild card based on their superior record (8-4) in conference play.
The Ravens already have exceeded the most optimistic preseason predictions in what everyone in the organization regarded as an evaluation season for rookies and other inexperienced players after more than a dozen key veteran starters were cut. Billick for the most part has been pleased, especially after the team has won five games without injured linebacker Ray Lewis.
"I've never really seen 'em panic," Billick said. "That's uncharacteristic of a young team. There have been a number of situations where they probably should have panicked. Hell, I was panicked. But they seemed to kind of go, 'Okay, this is where we're at. What do we do now?'
"They listen. They follow directions. And for that reason we stayed competitive even in games we didn't play particularly well. You don't see sloppy play. You don't see guys quitting. They just kept their focus."
Most of the attention among the rapidly developing players has focused on tight end Todd Heap, linebacker Edgerton Hartwell, cornerback Gary Baxter and fullback Alan Ricard, all in their second seasons, and rookie safety Ed Reed and rookie defensive lineman Tony Weaver.
But Billick also mentioned the tight ends behind Heap, rookie Terry Jones Jr., and three-year veteran John Jones.
"That's as good a group of young tight ends as there are in the league," Billick said. "Terry's a good example of the younger guys. He works hard, grades out well, never hit that [rookie] wall and helped defy some stereotypes about young players and young teams."
The Ravens go into the Steelers game relatively healthy with no regular listed as less than probable. Quarterback Chris Redman (back) remains questionable but would play if starter Jeff Blake were injured. Pittsburgh upgraded quarterback Tommy Maddox (ankle) from questionable to probable today, but cornerback Chad Scott (hand) is out and tailback Jerome Bettis (knee) is questionable.