OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Having reached the playoffs in six of the past seven years, the Baltimore Ravens are generally considered to be among the NFL elite.
They now find themselves grouped in a different category: One of the league's four winless teams.
The Ravens entered the season with designs on winning their third Super Bowl, but after starting 0-3 they're going to have to buck history to reach the playoffs.
Only five teams have lost started 0-3 and qualified for postseason play, none since the 1998 Buffalo Bills.
In spite of this, Baltimore remains optimistic that the hole it has dug is not too deep to quash its chances of playing meaningful games in January.
"We're going to find a way out. We will come out of this the other way," coach John Harbaugh said. "What we want to be able to do is look back on it and be proud of the way that we conducted ourselves. That's what you have to do in hard times."
In his previous seven years in Baltimore, Harbaugh never experienced an 0-2 start. Neither had his quarterback, Joe Flacco, who made his NFL debut with Harbaugh and has collaborated with his coach to win 10 playoff games, including a Super Bowl.
After the Ravens lost at Denver 19-13 and were upset at Oakland 37-33, Flacco said, "I know we don't want to be in a situation where I'm sitting up here next week talking about the same stuff."
Well, after a 28-24 loss to Cincinnati on Sunday, Flacco was thrust into the exact scenario he hoped to avoid.
"We've had bad records through five games, six games. We've lost three games before in a row," Flacco said. "If we're not mentally strong enough, if we're not mentally tough, then there's definitely a better chance at 0-3 to slip into a bad mode. It's definitely a slippery slope."
Although the Ravens won't necessarily attach a "must-win" tag on Thursday night's game in Pittsburgh, a defeat against their AFC North rivals will increase the odds against them of reaching the playoffs.
Since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970, 135 teams have started 0-4. Only one — the 1992 San Diego Chargers — rallied to get into the postseason, according to STATS.
Three close losses: The funny thing about the Ravens' 0-3 start is that they very easily could be 3-0. Baltimore came extremely close to scoring the go-ahead touchdown in the waning seconds at Denver and held the lead late in the fourth quarter against Oakland and Cincinnati before succumbing.
"There are times when we're playing at a high level," cornerback Jimmy Smith said. "It's just we've got to be way more consistent."
Baltimore's shortcomings were evident in Sunday's home loss. Smith was part of a secondary that yielded 383 yards passing; the running game generated only 36 yards on 18 attempts; and the Ravens were flagged for 13 penalties.
If that continues, then Baltimore has no chance to rebound from the first 0-3 start in franchise history.
"We understand what kind of football team we're capable of becoming," Harbaugh said, "but we haven't been good enough to get those things done. So we have to get better."
It's difficult to imagine a more difficult schedule than opening with two games out west, followed by a home game against Cincinnati— which went 10-5-1 last season— followed by a road matchup with the AFC North champion Steelers.
If the Ravens can right themselves, however, they will benefit from a far easier slate in the weeks ahead. After hosting Cleveland, they travel to San Francisco and Arizona before finishing with six of nine games at home.
Of course, that home stretch won't matter if Baltimore doesn't correct its many flaws and snap out of this funk. The Ravens appear to have gotten a break in that Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger won't play Thursday night, leaving Baltimore as a slight favorite over a Pittsburgh offense led by Michael Vick.
A victory won't salvage the season, but at least it's a start.
"Win one game and we're 1-3. Big deal, we're 1-3," Flacco said. "So, I think that the biggest thing for us is going to be to keep our attitude right. Because if we don't do that, then we're going to have no chance. If we do it, man, the fact that we're 0-3 right now doesn't mean anything."
Copyright 2015 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.