After six games, the Chiefs and Ravens stood 1-5 and neither season was going according to script.
The Chiefs had been openly optimistic about their team’s chances of making the playoffs, and postseason had become a forgone conclusion for the Ravens, who had been there in six of coach John Harbaugh’s seven seasons.
But the fifth loss became a pivot point for the Chiefs, who have ripped off seven straight victories and find themselves in the playoff picture.
The season never turned for Baltimore, who lug a 4-9 record into Sunday’s game at M&T Bank Stadium.
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Offensive tackle Jah Reid, in his first season with the Chiefs after spending his first four with the Ravens, including the 2012 Super Bowl championship year, knows the Chiefs are facing a team going nowhere this season but one with an established winning culture that suggests nothing will be easily gained Sunday.
“They have very high expectations there, and I know they’re taking these losses very hard,” Reid said. “They were really expecting to be in the playoffs this year.
“They’re going to come out and play hard regardless of their record and who’s playing. The mentality there is to have a bully mentality, so know they’re going to come out and play hard.”
It’s a mentality built on winning. Since Harbaugh arrived for the 2008 season, the Ravens lead the NFL in playoff games (15) and victories (10).
That’s made this year difficult to accept, but not explain. Injuries have played a big role. Eleven starters have missed a total of 46 games, and the Ravens currently have 18 players on injured reserve.
In last week’s home loss to the Seahawks, Jimmy Clausen became the Ravens’ third quarterback to start. He took over for Matt Schaub, who had replaced Joe Flacco before being sidelined with a chest injury. Flacco was lost for the season on Nov. 22 with a knee injury.
As the Ravens deal with disappointment, Harbaugh said he’s taken comfort in a verse from the Bible, James 1:2, or at least his interpretation of it.
“Rejoice in trials and tribulations because they create patience and perseverance,” Harbaugh said. “I’m paraphrasing, that’s the Harbaugh version of that verse, but that has been one jumping out at me the last couple of weeks.
“Tough times come our way for a reason. It’s to make us better. It’s to forge us, to make us become something. Sometimes it’s just words, other times it’s reality. For me, it’s been a reality.”
Harbaugh said Wednesday he didn’t know if Clausen or Schaub would start Sunday but would lean toward Schaub if he is healthy.
“I think we’d lean that way,” Harbaugh said. “He’s been with us the whole year, and I think he’d deserve that opportunity. I’m not going to say for sure, but that would be the way I would lean.”
But Clausen would bring something of an advantage. He was a member of the Bears when they defeated the Chiefs 18-17 at Arrowhead Stadium on Oct. 11. He has seen the Chiefs at a low ebb and now could line up against them peaking. But both times, Clausen was impressed with a defense that ranks fourth in the NFL in sacks (39) and tied for second in takeaways (24).
“They’re explosive, get to the quarterback,” Clausen said. “They’re great pass-rushers and run-stoppers.”
And the Chiefs are playing for the postseason. The Ravens have been eliminated but will have a say in the AFC playoff race.
The Ravens finish at home against the Steelers, who own the same record as the Chiefs but are outside the projected playoff bracket, and at AFC North leader Cincinnati. Harbaugh insists the Ravens won’t need to manufacture enthusiasm for the home stretch.
“We’ve got a lot of character people here, coaches and players,” he said. “I’m proud of the way our guys have handled a very, very challenging season from a lot of different standpoints, some in our control and some not in our control.”