The Baltimore Ravens don't scare any of the AFC's top teams, and a potential postseason appearance will only lead to the inevitable: losing to the New England Patriots, Pittsburgh Steelers or the upstart Jacksonville Jaguars.
The Ravens improved to 9-6 with Saturday's 23-16 victory over the Indianapolis Colts at M&T Bank Stadium. Baltimore controls its destiny and will appear in the playoffs with a victory next weekend against the Cincinnati Bengals.
The path appears clear, but it's a dead end.
New England and Pittsburgh boast superior offenses, while the Jaguars feature a standout defense and top-notch rushing attack.
The Ravens' multiple shortcomings leave them outside the realm of legitimate contenders. It starts with quarterback Joe Flacco, extends to the offense's lack of playmakers and ends with an above-average but not dominant defense buoyed by an impressive turnover margin.
The team has played well since its Week 10 bye, but it's all relative. The Indianapolis Colts were within striking distance and had an opportunity to tie the game on their final drive.
"It was not the best-played game by us," head coach John Harbaugh said, per ESPN.com's Jamison Hensley. "We made a number of mistakes, starting with me."
The good and bad each presented itself during Saturday's contest.
Overall, the Ravens are 5-1 down the stretch, which puts them in playoff position. However, Baltimore only won a single game against an opponent with an above-.500 record, beating the 8-6 Detroit Lions 44-20 in Week 13.
The one loss during the aforementioned span came against the Steelers. Baltimore dropped both games to Pittsburgh and allowed Ben Roethlisberger to throw for 722 combined passing yards—including a 506-yard effort Dec. 10.
The Ravens roster is inherently flawed with Flacco behind center. Granted, he's played well of late, as ESPN Stats & Info illustrated:
While Flacco isn't making mistakes, he's not filling that stat sheet, either.
The 10-year veteran has yet to eclipse 300 passing yards in a game. He entered Saturday's contest with an NFL-worst 5.82 yards per attempt. Even over the last four games, he's averaged 7.04 yards per attempt—which would only be good enough to tie for 19th if that were his number on the season.
The problem with the Ravens' 29th-ranked passing offense is twofold.
Flacco isn't pushing the ball downfield, and he struggles with bouts of inaccuracy due to poor mechanics. Not all of this is his fault, though.
Baltimore's wide receivers are poor. The Ravens were among four offenses that gained less yardage from their wideouts than the Steelers' Antonio Brown produced by himself heading into this weekend's contests (1,533), per ESPN.
Mike Wallace leads the team with 708 receiving yards and is 37th overall in yardage. The 31-year-old's also been the squad's most consistent performer in recent weeks.
Otherwise, the Ravens have gotten next to nothing from 2015 first-round pick Breshad Perriman. He grabbed two receptions for 14 yards against the Colts. Sadly, it was his third-best performance of the season.
Jeremy Maclin missed Saturday's game with a knee injury.
If not for Michael Campanaro's six-yard touchdown reception, no one would have known any Ravens wide receivers took the field.
A dominant front could help all of this. Yet the offensive line doesn't hold up to inspection. The team lost three starters this year with John Urschel's unexpected July retirement as well as injuries to Marshal Yanda (fractured ankle) and Alex Lewis (torn labrum). Ryan Jensen, Matt Skura and Austin Howard are starting in their places.
Overall, the unit could be much worse, considering the circumstances. However, Colts outside linebacker Jabaal Sheard terrorized Flacco, per Pro Football Focus:
Sheard is a solid edge defender, but he's not a standout.
What happens when the Ravens front faces Cam Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, Calais Campbell or Yannick Ngakoue again? It won't be pretty. In fact, Heyward managed a pair of sacks the last time the Ravens faced the Steelers, and the Jaguars knocked Flacco out of the game when the teams met in London.
Defensively, the Ravens lead the NFL with 33 turnovers and rank eighth in total defense.
But this isn't the Baltimore of yesteryear. It's not an overwhelming group featuring Ray Lewis and Ed Reed. Terrell Suggs can still bring it, but he's 35 years old. Plus, the team lost its best cover corner when it placed Jimmy Smith on injured reserve in early December due to a torn left Achilles tendon.
Suggs and Co. allowed 296 yards to the NFL's 31st-ranked offense and dropped a pair of sure interceptions Saturday.
"We didn't play a perfect game, but we did enough to win," the veteran linebacker said, per Hensley. "Next week, we're going to need to play perfect [against Cincinnati]."
Harbaugh echoed Suggs' sentiment, per the Baltimore Sun's Jeff Zrebiec, "It wasn't the best game by our defense, but we made a play when we needed it most."
After all, the Colts were 10 yards away from tying things and forcing overtime. In the end, the Ravens proved to be the better team.
They won't be the better team when the playoffs arrive, though.
The bottom half of the AFC postseason picture is ugly. The Kansas City Chiefs are 3-6 since their 5-0 start. Neither the 8-6 Buffalo Bills nor the 8-6 Tennessee Titans have any margin for error.
However, the top of the AFC is stacked, and everyone else is playing to get into meetings with the top three teams only to bow out of the playoffs early.
Baltimore should be proud of how it saved its campaign. A 4-5 start turned into a 9-6 record, and it will have destiny in its hands next week against the rival Bengals. The excitement of another postseason appearance is tempered by a subpar offense and a defense that's not good enough to carry the load, though.
The NFL doesn't hand out participation trophies, and the Ravens aren't going anywhere of consequence.