For the Ravens and a number of other AFC teams who’ve plodded along with a .500 record or slightly worse through the first three quarters of the 2013 season, the final sprint is here in determining who will grab the coveted second wild-card spot as Kansas City is all but guaranteed the No. 5 seed.
Of course, coach John Harbaugh and his team still hold hope that their Week 17 meeting with the Cincinnati Bengals will provide an opportunity to play for the AFC North title, but the Ravens will need their division counterpart to slip up to reduce the deficit to just one game entering that final contest at Paul Brown Stadium on Dec. 29. In the meantime, the Ravens simply must focus on winning games and securing their current grip on the No. 6 seed in the AFC as their 6-6 record equals the Dolphins — and an Oct. 6 victory over Miami gives them the tie-breaking nod.
Following this Sunday’s game against the Minnesota Vikings that concludes the current three-game homestand, the Ravens have the most difficult path of any of the wild-card contenders over the final three weeks in playing three teams projected to land in the postseason. Baltimore figures to need to win three of its final four games in the final month for a good chance to maintain its grip on the No. 6 seed, meaning the Ravens will likely need to win two of three against Detroit, New England, and Cincinnati and only the Patriots game will be played at M&T Bank Stadium in Week 16.
The Ravens’ 6-4 conference record stacks up well with the rest of the field, but the outcome of their two remaining AFC games will loom large should they find themselves in a number of tie-breaking situations.
Here’s a look at the rest of the field as I determine who the contenders and the pretenders are:
MIAMI (6-6) – CONTENDER
Conference record: 5-3
Remaining schedule: at Pittsburgh, New England, at Buffalo, New York Jets
Skinny: It would have been unsurprising to see the Dolphins fold in November with the Richie Incognito-Jonathan Martin situation hanging over their heads, but Miami has rebounded from an embarrassing loss to Tampa Bay to win two of its last three. The Dolphins are in the best position to challenge the Ravens mathematically, but their next two games will make or break them as they go to Heinz Field before playing the Patriots at home. Just one win over the Steelers or New England would put incredible heat on the Ravens over the final two weeks against difficult opponents. Of course, the Dolphins’ Week 5 loss to Baltimore continues to doom them if those two teams finish tied for the No. 6 spot with no one else in the mix.
TENNESSEE (5-7) – PRETENDER
Conference record: 4-5
Remaining schedule: at Denver, Arizona, at Jacksonville, Houston
Skinny: Their current record and remaining schedule still suggest the Titans have a slim chance, but the season-ending injury to quarterback Jake Locker last month and two losses to a vulnerable Indianapolis team in their last three games have all but sealed their fate. Backup Ryan Fitzpatrick had been playing well before an awful performance this past Sunday, but the next two games figure to be the final nails in the coffin to the Titans’ playoff hopes. Tennessee started fast this season, but only two wins since the start of October clearly scream pretender in an already-mediocre field.
PITTSBURGH (5-7) – CONTENDER
Conference record: 4-5
Remaining schedule: Miami, Cincinnati, at Green Bay, Cleveland
Skinny: Many eulogized the Steelers’ season following the Thanksgiving night result, but Pittsburgh could still be the biggest threat in the wild-card race with three remaining home games. A normally-intimidating trip to Lambeau Field in Week 16 to take on the Packers could also be easier should Aaron Rodgers be shut down for the rest of the season as some are speculating. A Steelers win over the Bengals in Week 15 would help the Ravens in their quest for the division title, but Baltimore’s season split with Pittsburgh creates a more complicated tiebreaker that could come down to division record or even record in common games. Perhaps more than anything else, Ravens fans begrudgingly know it’s never a good idea to count out Ben Roethlisberger, meaning the Steelers still have a shot.
SAN DIEGO (5-7) – PRETENDER
Conference record: 3-6
Remaining schedule: New York Giants, at Denver, Oakland, Kansas City
Skinny: The Chargers’ home loss to Cincinnati on Sunday not only failed to do the Ravens any favors in the AFC North race but landed Mike McCoy’s team in the pretender category. San Diego has arguably looked better than any of the other wild-card contenders — the Ravens included — when playing at its best, but inconsistency has once again plagued the Chargers as it seems to annually. They have three remaining home games, but the Chargers have already lost three games at Qualcomm Stadium and are just as likely to lay an egg against the Giants or the Raiders than to pull off an upset over the Broncos or the Chiefs. Their abysmal conference record won’t do them any favors in a tie-breaking scenario, so San Diego’s only real hope is to run the table.
NEW YORK (5-7) – PRETENDER
Conference record: 2-7
Remaining schedule: Oakland, at Carolina, Cleveland, at Miami
Skinny: Only two weeks ago we were talking about the Jets holding the No. 6 spot in the conference, but they’ve crashed and burned since then with a road loss to the Ravens and an embarrassing home defeat to Miami by 20 points this past Sunday. Their quarterback situation is the worst of any of the teams still vying for a wild-card spot as Geno Smith hasn’t thrown a touchdown pass since before Halloween. The Jets’ remaining schedule isn’t awful, but they appear far more likely to lose their four remaining games than to go on a run necessary to land the No. 6 seed. New York was still better than many expected this year, but a dysfunctional offense has finally sunk the Jets after some impressive wins earlier in the season.