BALTIMORE - When the Ray Rice assault case first surfaced in February, the Baltimore Ravens 1) knew he deserved punishment and needed counseling, 2) wanted the incident to evaporate quickly and 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 & 10) wanted Rice back on the field pronto. Feel free, if you must, to switch the order of that 10-point plan.
By September, there was new video of Rice's assault on his then-fiancee, now wife, Janay. Soon afterward, Rice was suspended indefinitely by the NFL. The Ravens' strong embrace turned into a messy release. Rice's admiration and love for the Ravens turned into an October grievance filed against them.
Two days before the Ravens met the San Diego Chargers Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium, Rice's indefinite suspension was overruled by an arbitrator. And when former FBI director Robert Mueller files his report on the Rice case, the Ravens hope to avoid another unforeseen blizzard.
You have to give the Ravens' players and coaches credit for navigating this maze. For attempting to lock it all out, tune it all out. Yet, it is impossible to do that.
If you care about the person -- and the Ravens have insisted all along they do -- how could the Rice fiasco not serve as distraction? How could you not keep spinning the questions of how did it happen and why did it happen and what was the route, any route, that might have kept Ray Rice a Raven?
How could Friday's news not affect Sunday's game?
"I think sometimes, all around, you can be too close to the forest to see the trees," said Antonio Gates, the Chargers' savvy, 12th-year tight end. "I think of my sisters and daughters when I say, clearly, that what Ray did was unacceptable. I and many players in this league have had explosive situations with women occur where we grabbed their arm or just tried to hold them to calm things down until they did. He did the wrong thing with the punch on every level. Now, the Ravens, I'm sure, were family to him. They were willing to deal with the issue at first. But the video surfaced and showed the unacceptable.
"Sure, it's the kind of thing that lingers for a team. It is the kind of thing that lingers for Ray. But I envision that through this trial and tribulation, he will learn more. He may come out on the other side twice the person that he was before. But it's too bad that none of that is going to happen with the Ravens. Sometimes, roads are crossed and then they're just done.''
Some teams are better able to manage crisis. The Ravens were 7-4 entering this game against the Chargers and should be commended for their resilience, most recently with a win last week at New Orleans. There are times they look like the champion Ravens of old: A team still high-functioning in its abilities to run the ball, stop the run, throw it deep, and sack the quarterback.
There were times Sunday, though, the Ravens looked lost in their 34-33 defeat to the Chargers.
They led 10-0 in the first minutes, by 16-10 at halftime, by 23-13 in the third quarter and by 30-20 with 6:13 left.
"This is a stinger," Ravens receiver Steve Smith said. "I have to stay focused. The game is a roller-coaster. You get paid to be focused and focus throughout the whole game."
Running back Justin Forsett added: "We pride ourselves on finishing what we needed to do and we gave them the ball back."
They gave the Chargers plenty back. Every chance to get points and get back in it. Big plays gained and then bigger plays allowed.
"We just needed a little more at the end," Ravens' coach John Harbaugh said.
The kind of winning runs and plays at the end that Rice used to often make would have helped.
Forsett is starting because Rice isn't. Forsett has rushed for 1,009 yards this season. It is the first time in his seven-year career he has ever rushed for 1,000-plus yards. He is a tough back. But Rice was better at getting those critical yards required to finish games
The Ravens players know they are not as good a team without him. But they also know and understand there were consequences after the assault.
"We never had a thought on the sideline that we felt the game was ever over, even when we got up by 10 points a couple of times," said back-up quarterback Tyrod Taylor. "We have learned to play here until the clock says zeroes. We know how tough our division is. But we can only deal with what's next.
"I haven't talked to Ray since the decision was made on Friday. But I am sure guys in here have talked to him and are happy for him. Do we want him back? Well, that is a question that is totally out of the players' hands. We don't control that. But I think he does deserve a fresh start."
The Ravens' players deserved a fresh start.
Though they slipped to 7-5, they remain close to AFC North-leading Cincinnati (8-3-1). The Ravens play at Miami, home against Jacksonville, at Houston and finish the regular season at home against Cleveland. There may be time to catch the Bengals. There is time to earn a Wild Card playoff berth.
There is no Phillip Rivers left in their remaining bunch of four to conquer. The Chargers quarterback here masterfully dealt with pressure around him all day.
Rivers passed for 383 yards and three touchdowns and kept needling the Chargers back. Joe Flacco tried doing the same but needed someone to make one more big play than San Diego. He needed the Ravens' defense to make 33 points enough.
The Ravens looked forlorn afterward. They must fight becoming broken as the calendar flips to December.
"They have a veteran group over there," said Chargers' receiver Eddie Royal, who caught the winning 1-yard touchdown pass with :38 seconds left. "The have great leadership over there. They have been one of the best organizations in football. I think they can find their way through this Ray Rice ordeal however it finally winds up."
Fight distractions. Fight criticism. Battle any doubts about what could have been with Ray Rice and what has been without him.
They've done that to reach 7-5.
How much endurance do they have left? It is a question they left here asking on Sunday.