The Baltimore Ravens sit in second place in the AFC North with a 6-5 record and five games remaining in the regular season. In order to make the post season, the team now has it's own fate in it's hands. Win out and without a doubt we will make the playoffs and who knows, possibly win the division if the Cincinnati Bengals fall apart over the last few games.
However, to expect this team to finish 11-5 with wins over both the Green Bay Packers and Pittsburgh Steelers on the road is pretty high expectations and while I'd love to see this happen and we absolutely have the talent to do so, finishing 10-6 seems like a more realistic outlook. That would mean that the Ravens would have to win one of the two aforementioned games and it would be great to get that out of the way this coming Monday night on the "Frozen Tundra of Lambeau Field." Winning in Green Bay in December, much less at night in front of a prime time audience is a tall task, but the Ravens are 2-0 in prime time so far this season.
So what has to happen around the AFC for the Ravens to get in if they end up finishing with a 10-6 record?
How the Ravens finish 10-6 makes a huge difference. If the Ravens lose to the Packers but beat the Steelers in Pittsburgh, that should be enough to get us in by a better division and head-to-head record. Otherwise, we'll have to possibly take a look at all the different tie-breakers against the other 10-6 teams to determine which teams get the two Wild Cards. So who is our competition and where do they stand?
The teams currently sitting at 5-6 look to be out of the picture but are only one game behind the Ravens, so for the sake of a great finish by one of those teams, let's just list them by name (Miami, NY Jets, Houston, Tennessee!).
That said, here are the teams whose record is as good or better than the Ravens and are fighting for the Wild Card positions at this point: Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Jacksonville, Denver). If the season ended right now, the Broncos and Jaguars would be the Wild Cards, with Denver getting in by a better record and the Jags beating out the Ravens with a better conference record.
How these teams do down the stretch will decide their fates with key matchups along the way. Here's each teams' schedules over the final five weeks of the season:
Ravens (@ GB, vs. Det., vs. Chi., @ Pit., @ Oak)
Steelers (vs. Oak, @ Cle., vs. GB, vs. Bal., @ Mia.)
Jaguars (vs. Hou., vs. Mia., vs. Ind., @ NE, @ Cle.)
Broncos (@ KC, @ Ind., vs. Oak., @ Phi., vs. KC)
Looking at the above schedules, we can see some advantages and disadvantages. Denver, albeit with the best schedule right now, goes on the road to both Indy and Philly. Expecting them to lose both of those contests, they could finish 10-6 and if the Ravens do the same, then we have the head-to-head tie-breaker over them. Jacksonville has a tough division game this weekend hosting Houston, but did beat them in week three at Houston. However, with games against both Indy and NE, they too could finish 3-2 down the stretch and end up 9-7 and out of the playoff picture. That leaves the Pittsburgh and us, with the Steelers being the most questionable team of all the current contenders based on the injury status of both Troy Polamalu and more importantly, Ben Roethlisberger. They could go anywhere from 5-0 to 2-3 depending on who plays and how they play. Knowing the Steelers, however, odds are they will be in the hunt and our game in three weeks will be another classic and could define the season.
So while there are a lot of possibilities that could determine the prder of the teams in contention, the Ravens can start their hunt for another post season berth this Monday night with an impressive victory in their second straight prime time appearance. Bring on the Pack!