Of all the AFC playoff contenders, the Baltimore Ravens remaining schedule appears to be the toughest of all.
There is still a quarter of the 2012 NFL regular season left, but most of the playoff spots are already decided. In the AFC, two teams have already clinched their divisions. The New England Patriots have clinched the AFC East while the Denver Broncos have done the same in the AFC West.
While the Houston Texans have the best record in the conference, they have not mathematically clinched the AFC South but are guaranteed a spot in the playoffs regardless of the rest of the schedule. The Baltimore Ravens are tied for the second best record in the AFC but have not officially clinched either the division nor a post season berth.
However, the Ravens road to the post season appears to be the most difficult, as three of their four opponents have winning records and two of them leading their respective divisions. Playing both the AFC West-leading Denver Broncos and NFC East-leading New York Giants at Baltimore's M&T Banks Stadium should give a slight advantage to the Ravens, but the Pittsburgh Steelers just finished proving that anything can happen regardless of venue.
Before those two games, the Ravens still need to take the short drive down Interstate 95 to play the Washington Redskins. The Skins might only be playing .500 ball, but they are always tough with their elusive and talented rookie QB, Robert Griffin III.
After seeing RG3, it won't get any easier for Baltimore, as they face the Manning brothers in successive weeks. The Ravens finish their regular season on the road at the Cincinnati Bengals, who should be in the thick of the race for a Wild Card playoff spot and fighting for their post season lives. Hopefully,by then a Ravens win or loss will not have an effect on the Ravens season one way or another.
Meanwhile, the Houston Texans (11-1) seem to have an insurmountable lead for the #1 overall playoff seed, a first round bye and home-field advantage throughout the post season. They play at the Patriots next Monday night, but Ravens fans would be better off rooting for the Texans to win in order to help the Ravens get the #2 seed.
Houston still have two games against their AFC South rivals and current Wild Card leader Indianapolis Colts, sandwiching a home game versus the Minnesota Vikings. The best Ravens fans could realistically hope for would be a split of the four games for the Texans which still gives Houston the tie-breaker over Baltimore due to their week seven whooping.
After the Patriots host Houston on Monday Night Football, they host the San Francisco 49ers in a tough match-up and then visit the Jacksonville Jaguars before ending their regular season hosting the Miami Dolphins. A2-2 finish for the Pats would greatly help the Ravens nail down the #2 seeding.
The Denver Broncos are the one team that could control the outcome of that #2 seed, as they come to Baltimore in two weeks for a match-up that could well be the deciding factor.Prior to that December 15th game, Denver plays at the Oakland Raiders this Thursday night and after the Ravens game, they finish up the season with two home games, against the Cleveland Browns and Kansas City Chiefs.
There is every reason to expect the Broncos to win their other three games, so the Ravens will need to take care of business and protect their house in order to control their own fate. A tough task but if Baltimore wants to prove they deserve to be part of the discussion on who will represent the AFC in the Super Bowl, the next four games will go a long way to making them worth mentioning.