This is not the situation the Baltimore Ravens imagined they would be in, nor is it one that they're used to. After nine games, the Ravens have only two wins, and though they have not been officially eliminated from the playoffs, their postseason chances are essentially nonexistent.
So, what does a proud veteran player do to motivate himself for the final seven games of the season?
"It's hard to get motivated sometimes when you're at 2-7 and you've never been 2-7, when you're out of contention for the playoffs," 10th-year tackle Orlando Brown said. The Ravens, who talked of going to the playoffs and possibly a Super Bowl before the season, have to find something else to keep them going. This is the third time in Brian Billick's seven years as coach that the Ravens have a losing record after nine games, but the 1999 and 2002 teams did not have the high expectations -- or the apparent talent (14 former Pro Bowlers) -- of this one.
"You've got to look ahead and think about some positive things we can do from here on out to salvage the season, meaning having a winning season," wide receiver Derrick Mason said after Baltimore's 30-3 loss Sunday in Jacksonville. "We've still got a shot at having a good record. Playoffs, I think that's not really what we should be thinking about right now. What we should be thinking of is regrouping as a team and playing some good football."
Some players have talked about the importance of going about their jobs as professionals, both in practice and on game day. Others have stressed the importance of staying together as one unified team.
After the loss to the Jaguars, quarterback Kyle Boller challenged his teammates to "look at yourself in the mirror and decide what kind of man you want to be. Do you want to finish this thing strong, do you want to put in extra work, do you want to try to get this team going?"
But outside issues for individuals have a way of creeping in, especially when the one overriding team goal is out of reach.
Running back Jamal Lewis has been dogged by questions about his desire for a long-term contract throughout the season; other players will be faced with the same issue. Billick has had to deal with the speculation that his job is in jeopardy. Boller has had to endure renewed criticism that he is not the quarterback around which the Ravens can build their team.
"It's a matter of the mindset you want to take with it," said Billick, when asked about the difficulties of maintaining focus when the playoffs are out of reach. "If you want to feel sorry for yourself, it's going to be a tough time. But if you choose to have a different mindset, it's really no different from any other time, and you keep that stuff at arm's length and you go about your job. These guys have done that very, very well. It is frustrating. Make no doubt about it."
But Billick expects the Ravens to be emotionally ready for Sunday's game; it is, after all, against the rival Pittsburgh Steelers. He said that his message to the team is the same one he'd use even if the Ravens were sitting at 7-2: Focus on winning this week's game, and don't look too far ahead.
Four of Baltimore's final seven games will come against teams that will be playing for playoff berths: Pittsburgh (7-2), Cincinnati (7-2), Denver (7-2) and Minnesota (4-5). The Ravens will also face three of the weakest teams in the NFL: Houston (1-8), Green Bay (2-7) and Cleveland (3-6).
"That's what we have to hold onto week to week; we could play the role of spoiler for the rest of the season," cornerback Chris McAlister said. "Everybody looks at us and, at this point, they pretty much move past us in the season; they think that we're not a team that they have to worry about it. It will be our joy and our happiness to go out and beat the teams that think they can come in here and dominate us."
That begins Sunday. Brown, for one, is ready to fight.
"You've just got to keep playing," Brown said. "You got a bloody nose, you keep coming. Right now we've got a bloody nose, teeth knocked out, but I'm going to keep fighting. . . . If I can bring some guys along that need to be motivated, I'm going to do that, too."
Ravens Note: The Ravens will host their 10th annual Family Foods and Funds Drive before Sunday's game. Volunteers will collect non-perishable food items and monetary donations, both of which will be given to the Maryland Food Bank.