There’s no denying that Baltimore’s chances to make the playoffs plummeted on Sunday. The loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers puts Baltimore in an awkward position. The Ravens now sit at 4-5, far behind the 5-2-1 first place Steelers in the race for the division. The Ravens are also stuck behind the 5-3 Bengals, who already defeated the Ravens in week two. The Ravens are virtually out of the division race. Baltimore’s only realistic shot at the postseason is through a wild card berth. While the Ravens face a steep hill, Baltimore has a plausible path to secure a wild card berth.
The Ravens are not alone in faltering. As the season inches towards a close, it is becoming increasingly clear that the AFC is a very weak conference. The Ravens will compete with 16 teams for one of two wild card berths. Of the 16 teams, only eight have a better win percentage than the Ravens. Four of those eight will be division winners, and one will likely win one wild card spot. Assuming that the Patriots, Chiefs, Steelers, and Texans all win their division, and the Chargers earn to win the first wild card position, the Ravens will be competing against four teams. These teams are the Cincinnati Bengals, the Miami Dolphins, the Tennessee Titans, and the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Before one can analyze Baltimore’s chances compared to the other AFC contenders, one must acknowledge the path the Ravens need to take. Baltimore has seven games left to play this season. The Ravens will face the Bengals, Raiders, Buccanneers, and Browns at home, and will travel to play the Falcons, Chiefs, and Chargers. The Ravens need to win at least five of the remaining seven matchups. Preferably, the Ravens would win all four of the remaining home games, and at least one road game. The Ravens should be able to defeat the Raiders, Buccaneers, and Browns. Each of these three teams is, at least on paper, inferior to the Ravens.
The Bengals will be Baltimore’s toughest challenge at home, and it’s most critical. As the Bengals will be fighting for a wild card slot with the Ravens, it is inconceivable that the Ravens could lose to Cincinnati again, and still grab the playoff berth. If the Ravens are able to run the table at home, Baltimore will need to find at least one road victory. The most likely candidate to fall to Baltimore would be Atlanta. The Falcons have struggled at times this season, and the inconsistency in Atlanta may be enough to give the Ravens the edge. The Ravens could also look for a win in Los Angeles or Kansas City, but both are unlikely, as the Chargers and Chiefs are among the NFL’s best teams.
A 9-7 finish does not always punch a ticket to the playoffs, but in this year’s weak AFC, it may be enough. Jacksonville is a freefalling team, and at 3-5, is the least likely of the group to be the wild card team. The Ravens also defeated the 4-4 Tennessee Titans earlier in the year as well. If it came to a head to head matchup, the Ravens would extend their season, and the Titans would go home. This leaves the 5-4 Miami Dolphins and 5-3 Cincinnati Bengals as the most likely contenders for the wild card. If the Ravens defeat the Bengals in two weeks after the bye week, a tie at the end of the season would result in the team with a better division games record placing above the other. While Baltimore has a great opportunity against the Bengals in two weeks, the Ravens do not have the opportunity to get ahead to head matchup with the Dolphins.
The Dolphins may cause problems down the stretch, but there is a plausible way that the Ravens can clinch the sixth seed in the AFC. This scenario assumes that the Ravens win out at home and defeat the Falcons on the road. It also assumes that the Dolphins drop four of the next seven games. If Miami loses to Green Bay, Minnesota, New England, and Jacksonville, they will finish at 8-8, eliminating them from playoff contention. As long as these two paths are taken, and the Bengals lose to the Saints, Ravens, Chargers, and Steelers in week 17, Baltimore would be in the playoffs.
There are other scenarios in which the Ravens can clear a path to the playoffs, but this one is by far the most plausible. It also assumes that the Titans lose at least three more games, and the Jaguars finish 8-8 or below. Tennessee is slated to meet New England, Houston, Washington, Jacksonville, Indianapolis twice, and both New York teams. The prospect of three losses for Tennesee in this schedule is very plausible, if not probable.