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A Season in the balance

History on Thursday's Game against Pittsburgh: Must win of the highest order.

Rob Grabowski-USA TODAY Sports

I did not want to write today. In fact, I wasn't sure I would write anymore about football. This week's events have been depressing enough to noticeably degrade my level of investment in the outcomes of NFL games, much less devote time to writing about them.

Perhaps that's why the forthcoming game against the Steelers seemed distant and unimportant by contrast. Organizations have let their constituents down, lives have been sordidly ruined in the most humiliating manner possible, and armchair cynicism has permeated in its wake.

I found myself thinking back to the end of the movie The Dark Knight when The Joker tells Batman of how he planned to destroy Gotham, not through physical means, but by destroying Harvey Dent who would in turn destroy his own image. A melodramatic analogy certainly (after all, there's no Joker villain here) but that's the image that struck me.

As Kris Jones wrote, Rice was that hero type of guy to many people before February 15 — none more so than Janay Rice herself, maybe. Like Two-Face though, that man, or at least the image of that man and certainly the player, is now gone.

After I completed the research for this article, I abandoned it, not planning to finish or publish it. Win, lose, or draw, after Monday's events, all felt funereal with respect to football. The thought of losing felt dulled, the joy of winning muted and fleeting — insignificant when compared to the damage to humanity on Monday.

Alas, the Baltimore Ravens can afford no such moments of philosophical meditation on the greater meanings outside football.

No, indeed, Thursday's game against Pittsburgh is a must-win. This is no hollow platitude. It has nothing to do with Monday's events. Nor is it related to the opponent being the Steelers either. History simply supports that this game must be won or else.

While my article sat unfinished, Jeff Darlington, a reporter with the NFL Network, currently situated at The Castle in Owings Mills, Md., one-upped my research by tweeting this:

His research team is 100% correct and supports what I had already found as well: no team has ever lost their first two games, at home, against division opponents, and later made the playoffs.

To be fair, it is a small sample size. Since 1966 (Super Bowl era), only 40 teams have even lost one of those two games and later made the playoffs. From that we can infer that teams that lose two consecutive home games to start the season to division opponents probably just aren't very good. Losing home games is already something good teams rarely do. The 2014 Ravens don't feel like a bad team and in fact quite the opposite. Even in defeat, the defense played soundly and the offense plagued itself with drive-killing drops more than anything.

Yet, it gets bleaker. Only five teams have lost their first two games of the season, whether home or away, against divisional opponents, and later made the playoffs. Interestingly, one of those is the AFC Champion New England Patriots from the 1996 season who finished 11-5 but were soundly defeated by the Green Bay Packers in Super Bowl XXXI.

If we extend the sample out to all teams who lost two home games to divisional opponents at any point in the season (week 17 excluded) we find a little more comfort. In this case, 62 teams have lost at least two home games to divisional opponents during the season and later made the playoffs.  Seven teams have lost three of them, including the Tim Tebow-led Denver Broncos from 2011.

Amazingly, two of the teams to lose two such games are the 2007 and the 2011 New York Giants, who upset the New England Patriots in Super Bowls XLII and XLVI.

More amazingly still, two of the other teams to do so were the 2000 Ravens and 2001 Ravens — the adversity and success of the 2000 team being well-documented following Ray Lewis' incident.

Moreover, two from last year's tournament were such teams: Kansas City and Philadelphia. However, as I highlighted earlier this week, not only were they the two healthiest teams in football, they also capitalized on a weak division or conference field. Expect no such quarter in 2014 as the AFC has noticeably improved.

Suffice to say, no season is lost in Week 1, and that's true for Week 2 also. Seventeen weeks are provided to determine the tournament combatants. A team can in fact lose two home games to divisional opponents and make the playoffs. But the odds are stacked against doing so with just 62 successes in 48 years due to tiebreaker complications.

As a result, we must conclude that teams who drop their first two games, at home, to their most critical rivals, must not be very good. Thus, is the importance of winning this game against Pittsburgh difficult to overstate.

On Thursday, we shall find out what type of team Baltimore is: a resilient one like the 2000 team who faced down the hardship of their situation as they embarked on their great journey — or otherwise.